Expecting at Lathrop, Part 4

by Barbara Walvoord

Several recent columns have featured pregnant Lathrop creatures. The most recent one was the porcupine, which is well defended against most predators, but has one special predator–the fisher–that knows how to overcome the porcupine’s defenses.

Also pregnant about now is another well-defended Lathrop resident–the skunk. Our skunk mom has emerged from her winter torpor–not quite a hibernation, but a slowing metabolism, during which her body temperature may have dropped 20 degrees. Invigorated by spring sunshine, she has mated with a polygamous dad, but for her, once is enough, and thereafter she has fought off all other suitors.

She’ll have her 4-8 babies in May or early June. She can dig her own den, but prefers to move into a used one, or, as some of us know, a spot under a porch. At 8 days old, the babies can emit their smelly defenses. After nursing for 8 weeks, they will hunt with their mom for awhile–bugs, mice, eggs, berries, garbage, pet food, bird seed, and whatever else they can get their little paws on. They’re especially fond of bees and honey. They knock on the hive and eat the guard bees that come out to investigate.

Skunks can spray up to 12 feet away from their bodies, and the smell can carry downwind for a mile. Skunks are actually reluctant to spray (but one source says young skunks are more ready to spray than older ones). The spray is an oil (which is why it dissipates so slowly and sticks so persistently), emitted by glands near the skunk’s anus. It takes 6-8 sprays for a skunk to empty its internal spray can, after which it has to wait about ten days while its body replenishes the supply. To avoid having to spray, the skunk will issue a warning by hissing, foot-stamping, and a tail-high threatening posture.

Most wild animals do not attack skunks (at least, not more than once). Its distinctive coloration functions as a warning. However, ask at any cocktail party and you’ll get lots of stories about dogs getting sprayed. Dogs seem to attack skunks because they’re just dumb about it. But great horned owls repeatedly attack skunks, seeming not to notice, or mind, the smell. In one case, the remains of 57 skunks were found in one owl’s nest. So next time you hear a great horned owl on Lathrop’s land, think about mama skunk and her babies–and about our land’s intricate web of predator and prey, birth and death.

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