By Diane Dragotto Williams
Skunks, also known as “polecats (with “pole” from either the French poule “chicken” or puant “stinking”),” are one of the most maligned animals in the western world. And yet, they are valuable to our ecosystem. Yes, of course, beware of their noxious spray that contains sulfur-containing chemicals! Skunks can spray with accuracy at targets that are up to ten feet away. Even bears give this small mammal a wide berth. Its spray can cause you to vomit, and get your dog to suffer the consequences of many tomato juice baths! However, this small creature does get a bad rap for being exactly what it is, a predator of varmints that need to be eradicated from your back yard. If you don’t take care of your garbage, he can be a nightly nuisance also.
Skunks are omnivorous, and change their diets as the seasons change. They eat insects and larvae, earthworms, grubs, small rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, moles, and eggs. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi, and nuts.
Interestingly enough, skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this behavior to their young.
Skunks are active at dusk and dawn and are solitary animals and they den up in burrows but are not true hibernators in winter. However, they remain generally inactive and feed rarely, going through a dormant stage. Over winter, multiple females (as many as 12) huddle together, while males often den alone.
Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision, being unable to see objects more than about 10 ft away, making them vulnerable to typical death by road traffic. They are short-lived; their lifespan in the wild is no more than three years, with most living only up to a year.
When a wildlife rehabilitator works with skunks, there is a special way of handling the skunk so as not to be sprayed. Also, they warn you with little taps on the ground with their front feet if you are about to be sprayed! They are adorable as youngsters, and have that “Flower” look about themselves, as Bambi’s friend had in the Walt Disney movie of the same name. Skunks are respected at Wildhaven Ranch. If you have any nuisance problems, you can contact Wildhaven at (909) 337-7389.
Wildhaven Ranch is a wildlife sanctuary in the San Bernardino Mountains. For more information about its tours and mission, visit its website at www.wildhavenranch.org.
By Diane Dragotto Williams