Some hard-earned knowledge about skunks

As the Ojibwe elders tell it, there was once a hunter who was a good provider for his wife and young son, but he unfortunately had a bad temper. One day, his wife irritated him while he was trapping beaver and he yelled at her so harshly that she ran back to the wigwam and took away their son, singing a song that went something like, “Your father doesn’t want us anymore. …”

When the man saw they had gone, he felt bad and decided to follow them. But something surprising happened. As their tracks approached a marsh, the prints of their moccasins began changing into skunk footprints. Soon he found himself surrounded by a band of many skunks and he could not tell which was his wife or son.

So the hunter learned the hard way to control his temper. Eventually, he found another wife, but he always told his children, “You must never eat a skunk because you might be eating your brother.” And they never did.

Little wonder that Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk (and its cousins the eastern and western spotted skunks) has triggered the imagination of generations of American storytellers from the Ojibwe’s giant skunk monster, Aniwye — who killed people by breaking wind at them — to Warner Brothers’ cartoon character, Pepe Le Pew. Love them or hate them, they’re difficult to ignore.

And there are indeed those who love them. For many years, when I taught the mammals section of my field biology course, I would survey the class: “Raise your hand if, like me, you cannot abide skunk odor — if you’re a roll-up-the-windows-and-hold-your-breath-until-the-car-is-three-miles-away kind of person.” Usually, a third or more of the class would shoot up their hands.

“Now raise your hand if you’re more like, yeah, I wouldn’t use it as an aftershave but, really, what’s the big deal?” Most students fell into this category. And finally, “OK, if you actually like the smell, please stand now to receive the accolades of your peers.” And every year, two or three brave souls would rise, typically to the great wonderment of the first group.

There’s actually been a bit of an academic stink over how much of a person’s response to a given odor has a genetic component and how much is learned when young. Some 50 years ago, a classic set of experiments showed that while the aroma of wintergreen was deemed one of the most pleasant of all scents in America, it was widely considered among the most repugnant of odors in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., wintergreen flavors candy and chewing gum; in the U.K., it long had been used in medicines.

Skunks are active from sundown through much of the night, generally spending the day in underground burrows when the temperature is cool or above ground in dense cover in the heat of summer. In northern areas, they become inactive in winter (though they do not enter a prolonged hibernation) and den up, with males typically going solo but females denning together in groups of up to a dozen.

Huddling together in a communal den markedly reduces a female’s energy losses over winter compared to a male — a Minnesota study showed solo-denning males lose up to 65 percent of their body weight — but also increases her chance of contracting disease. In the U.S., skunks are second only to raccoons as vectors of rabies.

In any case, 50-70 percent of the babies born in mid-May to mid-June will not survive their first year, in part due to the availability of suitable winter dens. This is one of the reasons skunk populations tend to be highest near human habitation. Porches, barns and abandoned structures of all sorts are ideal real estate, especially if there’s a loosely secured compost bin close to hand.

Skunks are omnivores, feeding on insects, worms, small vertebrates, eggs, berries, fungi and nuts, as available. Interestingly, the three innermost toes of their small front feet are fused, which facilitates digging for grubs and ants. They are one of the few predators that regularly prey on ground-nesting yellow jacket colonies, their long fur providing some protection from stings.

Although skunks can shoot a stream of sulfurous liquid 10 or more feet from their two anal scent glands with great accuracy (they aim for the eyes), they usually do so only as a last resort if hissing, foot stamps and high tail threats fail to deter a potential menace.

But if Muttley has nonetheless found a way to get doused, don’t bother with tomato juice. The best home remedy is a mixture of a quart of hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup baking soda and a teaspoon of liquid dish soap. Sad to say, I happen to know this works pretty well.

Ken Baker is a scientist and a retired biology professor. If you have a natural history topic you’d like the author to consider for an upcoming column, email your idea to rweaver@advertiser-tribune.com.