Spring smells may include more than just flowers

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Getting up close and personal to a striped skunk is not usually a desire of most people, unless you are a naturalist at heart. Just to be safe, the author of this column had the opportunity to get close via the use of a telephoto lens. It was last week when this skunk was observed probing grassland vegetation for insects, worms, mice or other tidbits of items to eat. This mammal, a member of the weasel family, knew I was there but was mostly unconcerned because I was far enough away. To be sure I stayed away, the tail was raised high a few times, a warning that closer might not be a good idea. I respected the warning while obtaining numerous photographic images.

A STRIPED SKUNK (Mephitis mephitis) is one of the most common members of the weasel family. It can be found coast to coast from southern Canada, all of the United States and into northern Mexico. It rambles about each spring, summer and fall in search of mates, food and more food. Come winter time, it does not hibernate but may den up with others of the species to sleep a lot and just wait out a long winter. Now that spring weather seems to be here to stay, the urges of skunks to find mates and food will become a nightly routine. Being mostly a nocturnal critter, daytime forays are also typical, just part of the normal activities of this very conspicuously marked mammal.

Lots of animals may have a black and white pattern to their plumage or fur coloring. The list could get quite lengthy if one includes every bird or mammal with predominant black and white markings. Zebras in Africa come to mind. So to do pandas in China, blacksmith plovers in Africa, Holstein cows in dairy states, and pileated woodpeckers in the woodlands of the Iowa River. However, the twin stripes of the common skunk will get ones attention, just as nature intended it to be. Why? Because to push the limits with this weasel may result in an outcome with at least a two week long offensive lingering odor that will guarantee you a single place at a picnic table in the middle of a large park.

The offensive odor of a skunk is a powerful weapon. Two special glands near its anus can be used to pump a white — yellowish oily liquid with great accuracy up to distances of about 10 feet. The recipient of this potent mixture will never forget it. Potential predators will remember with one exception. Great horned owls don’t care about smell. This large owl is a night-time hunter and any skunk that is vulnerable may become food for the owl and its family. Now back to the secret ingredients that make the skunk musk so putrid and disturbing. It contains powerful odorous thiols, sulfur analogues of alcohols called mercaptans. If the spray gets into the eyes of a predator, it will cause a temporary and intense burning sensation. Ernest Thompson Seton likened the smell to a mixture of perfume musk, essence of garlic, burning sulfur and sewer gas “magnified a thousand times.”

A skunk odor removal formula is available. For a pet cat or dog that has been sprayed by a skunk, consult a vet. He or she will also know that part of the fix for the odor problem is 1 quart of three percent hydrogen peroxide, one cup of baking soda and one teaspoon liquid soap. Mix these ingredients in a plastic bucket. Then use the final product to wash your pet, being very careful to avoid getting the fix mix into the eyes, nose and mouth. The trick to doing this correctly may best be obtained from a veterinarian. I’d follow their advice.

A female skunk that is pregnant will give birth about mid May to a litter of 2-12 hairless and blind kits. An underground den site or old hollow log may serve as home. At three weeks of age, young kits now have fur with its characteristic white stripes on an all black body. At about 42-56 days, the young will be weaned. They will then be lead on nighttime hunting and foraging expeditions to find food and learn from mom what to eat. While not yet potent in the scent making department, young skunks will quickly set up a tail high posture and defensive stance if threatened. After another three months of following their mother, the young are independent.

A diet list that skunks will seek out include insects like grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, and caterpillars. Small rodents such as mice, voles, bird eggs and the young of ground nesting birds are also on this list. Near stream edges, crustaceans and small fish will be consumed. Young rabbits can be added to the diet when a nest is found. Vegetable matter from fallen fruit trees, apples, berries, ground cherries, corn and nightshade will be eaten. Skunks are omnivores.

Predators that will kill and eat skunks include cougars, coyotes, badgers, bobcats and red and gray foxes but only if these animals are starving. Otherwise skunks are avoided if at all possible. Eagles and large owls will have no hesitation in killing skunks.

Another potential problem that does not affect every skunk is its ability to carry sylvatic rabies. This disease is truly dangerous and is often fatal to pets, or humans, if not timely treated. Just because a person sees as skunk does not infer a diagnosis of rabies carrying by that animal. Possible? Yes, but there is no way to know until scientific lab tests are conducted. That is not going to happen with living skunks. However, if a bite case is suspected, immediate advice from a doctor or in the case of a pet, advice from the vet should be followed. Quick treatment saves lives. No treatment is likely to kill you or your pet.

A skunk is a neat animal, part of nature’s mix of critters playing a role in healthy ecosystems. Skunks have earned a reputation for people to respect this animal because of its special markings, intimidating behavior and the unique special smells it may give off. Spring flowers make people smile. Skunk odors make people run away. And that is just what the skunk species wants, to be left alone. It usually get that wish fulfilled.

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The IOWA RIVER is running high, not flooded, at least for now. So a temptation for recreationists is to venture out in a kayak, canoe or other boat to relax, just go from point A to B, or to do a bit of fishing. All of these are great ideas. Maybe it is best to allow the river levels to drop first and the water to get warmer.

If you insist on going onto the water now, do prepare ahead of time for cold water. Spring is not summer. The sun and warmer air have not had time to warm the waters of area streams, ponds or lakes. Cold water can kill via a process called hypothermia. Body heat is lost incredibly fast if immersed in cold water. That can happen if a kayak or canoe tips over while you are in it. You will have only a minute, at most, to make rational decisions about how to survive. Most people do not think about survival at all, just have a good time. Then when and if a accident happens and reality strikes, it may be too late to save oneself. Water recreation demands respect. Water will be indiscriminate to anyone unprepared.

Serious early spring paddlers should wear rubber wet suits to help retain body heat. Life jackets need to be inspected for good service capabilities. The water craft itself needs to be inspected for its ability to do what it was designed to do. For people, pack a dry bag with extra clothes and towels. A first aid kit, a cellphone protected in a waterproof bag or container can be a life saver. Good clean drinking water is also must. Never forget to tell family and friends where you plan to put into a river, and at what time and when you expect to be finished with the expedition. Then call those friends to let them know you made it safely to the destination. Do have fun by being well prepared before you go. Be safe.

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Migrating birds that are likely to show up soon may make a long list. Look now for species like eastern kingbirds, flycatchers, marsh wrens, catbirds, wood thrush, red-eyed vireos, all kinds of warblers, scarlet tanagers, American oriole, tanagers and Harris’ sparrow. There are more of course. This list is just to wet your appetite to get outside to an area prairie grassland, marshland/wetland, or forest setting. The sounds of spring are going to improve almost daily. Be there to enjoy it with a keen ear, good eyes with helpful binoculars, and a good friend.

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“Nature: Cheaper than therapy.”

— Author unknown

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Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.