Most signs of spring are welcome additions to our winter-weary worlds, but there is one that’s not so pleasing to the senses. The scent of skunk love puts a wrinkle in our noses at this time of year, when males of this striped species produce a pungent eau de parfum
in hopes of attracting a mate creating that whiff of spring we could do without.
Beginning in February and continuing through March, male skunks are in the mood for love, which can cause a real stink in the neighborhood! Some female skunks too busy to be bothered by romance readily douse fur-covered Romeo’s in a fine spray of strong-smelling musk. At other times, it’s the males who perfume the air as they encounter real or perceived threats to their safety. By lifting its tail, the skunk executes this finely-honed defense mechanism by emitting a noxious spray from two glands located, shall we say, in the “rear compartment.”
There are four species of skunks in North America and the most common, the striped skunk, calls Ohio home. They can be found throughout the state living in a wide range of habitats, including grasslands, meadows and woodlands. Yet they are equally comfortable with suburban life where, unbeknownst to many homeowners, they create dens beneath decks, sheds and wood piles.
Skunks are primarily nocturnal, coming out after dark to forage for food one reason why they are more often smelled than beheld. But unlike most nocturnal animals, skunks have poor vision and rely on a keen sense of smell to locate their food. As omnivores, a skunk’s diet is varied to include grubs, insect larvae, berries, grasses, nuts, eggs of ground-nesting birds and, occasionally, small rodents and amphibians. In urban areas, skunks consider household garbage and uneaten pet food to be fine dining.
Fittingly, the skunk’s Latin name, Mephitis mephitis, translates to mean “bad odor.” What causes the musk to be so fragrant is its chemical make up, which includes sulfur-alcohol mixed with other sulfur-containing compounds. Not only does it smell rotten, but the substance is strongly acidic, producing an acute burning sensation when directed into the eyes.
This stink factor has created in many people an unreasonable fear of skunks, but these cat-sized creatures have no more interest in encountering you than you have encountering them.
In fact, squirting the foul-smelling fluid is a skunk’s only defense, and with a limited supply that takes up to a week to replenish, it does not spray on a whim. When threatened, a skunk will face its attacker, then raise its tail, stomp its feet and chatter its teeth as a warning to “get away, or else!” If the predator is not smart enough to leave well enough alone, the skunk will literally turn tail and give it what it deserves. A skunk can accurately spray to a distance of six feet. And if the wind is blowing just right the spray can travel upwards of 13 to 23 feet.
Nature provided the skunk with its trademark black and white-striped coat as a bold warning to other wildlife to leave it alone. Unfortunately for Canis domesticus
a.k.a. Fido, Spot and Fluffy such information is not ingrained in their little psyches, leaving them frequent targets of skunk spray. When this happens, pet owners are usually left scrambling for a way to de-stink the dog. Experts advise leaving the tomato juice and vinegar in the cupboard. It’s better to use this homemade solution listed in the chart.
Then hold your nose and convince the dog that a bath is a good idea. Afterward, you’d be wise to soak the clothes you wore while bathing the dog in the same deodorizing solution!
If you don’t want skunks around, don’t give them a place to den or food to eat. Use heavy screening or hardware cloth to seal off access beneath decks, porches or outbuildings. Place garbage in covered and secured trash containers, and do not feed outdoor pets more than they can consume at one feeding.
Over the next several weeks, the robust aroma of skunk love is likely to be floating in the evening and early-morning breeze. Instead of wrinkling our sensitive noses, perhaps we should appreciate it as one of nature’s true first scents of spring.