Society

‘Do not pet’: A skunk by any other name...

Would smell just as bad. They’re known as “stink cats” and “pole cats,” but their scientific name, “mephitis mephitis,” tells it all. It means “bad odor.”

The smell of their pungent musk, it turns out, is just as disgusting to the skunk as it is to everyone else. They lift their tail out of harm’s way whilst spraying so they can walk away stink-free. The only time you will “smell” a skunk is when it has sprayed, otherwise, it’s practically odorless.

Skunks belong to the weasel family. They are gentle and nonaggressive, only pulling out the heavy ammunition when threatened.

Texas is home to five skunk species. The skunk we see most in Milam County is the striped skunk. It’s the size of a house cat with a white stripe that starts on its head, and splits at the neck to form stripes down either side of its back and onto its tail.

Their musk resides in two glands located on the animal’s backside. Normally, these glands are hidden, but when the skunk raises its tail to shoot, the ducts stick out. The skunk has total control over how to aim its ducts. They can be shot at different times, in different directions, and at varying heights. The skunk doesn’t have to turn around to spray, but can perform a handstand and spray while it’s upside down.

It can even control how much it sprays. The spray can reach a target up to 15 feet away.

The musk has such great sticking power it is used as a perfume base once the odor is removed. So perfumes, once used to hide human body odor, start off with a base of the most malodorous odor of all.

To avoid being sprayed by a skunk, stand still until the skunk leaves. A threatened skunk will purr or growl, rise up on its back feet, run towards you, stamp its front feet, and click its teeth.

Skunks have few natural enemies. The Great Horned Owl is the worst threat, as it is not bothered by the smell. The main danger to skunks is traffic. They live pretty much everywhere, from woods to brush to open areas. They prefer living in abandoned dens, but can make their own if needed. They may even take up residence under your house.

They line their dens with leaves. How they get them to their den is kind of cute. They shovel them under their bodies, and shuffle to the den with the leaves held between their legs.

During the winter several females may share a den. The males usually live alone.

Skunks are active at night and the early morning hours. They are omnivorous, eating meat, plants, as well as carrion. They can find something to eat pretty much anytime of the year. They can make great neighbors, within reason, as 70 percent of what they eat is insects and rodents harmful to humans.

By fall, skunks are getting fat to prepare for the winter. They won’t hibernate, but will become less active. Skunks breed February through March. Babies are born blind and deaf in May. The mother weans them after five weeks, but the babies will stick around for up to a year. Typically, skunks have one litter of five babies a year, but sometimes a skunk may have two litters. Skunks will typically live two years.

Skunks have luxuriant fur. In the early 20th century they were very popular fur coats. The coats were sold as “American sable” or “Alaskan sable.” When the courts ruled that people must be told they were buying skunk fur, the skunk fur market collapsed.

Spray remedy

I found an interesting remedy for getting skunk stink off your dog, although I haven’t tried it personally. First, don’t immediately wash your dog. Instead, soak a rag in mineral spirits and wipe off the dry dog. The mineral spirits cut through the oily musk. Once you have finished wiping down the dog, wash with a shampoo.

walton.shawn@gmail.com El Camino Real Master Naturalists:

http://grovesite.com/tmn/ecrmn


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2010-02-04 digital edition



The burn ban for Milam County has been lifted. Burning is always prohibited in the county's municipalities.


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