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Inside the Outdoors: Scent of skunk is a first sign of spring

It's a scent that can be confused with no other, as anyone familiar with it will agree. Some have worse memories than others, memories that may involve a bath of soap and tomato juice after their dog got too close for a skunk's comfort. For many, the introduction is on a highway, passing a point where an incautious skunk became roadkill; a place where — long after — an invisible cloud of musky odor hangs in the air. PineandLakes.com Illustration

The human olfactory sense — our sense of smell — is not always fully appreciated for its power. Some say it's the most powerful of our senses when it comes to generating emotions and memories. The scent of marsh muck, wet dog hair or Hoppe's No. 9 gun cleaning solvent can unleash a tide of memories, and transport us momentarily back to a duck blind or a deer stand. Or, when our nose catches the aroma trail from a restaurant kitchen, we hunger for a ribeye steak or a juicy 'burger. Scent carries an undeniable emotional punch.

Last Friday morning, opening the back porch door in the dim pre-dawn to let our Labrador out to relieve herself, I caught the unmistakable scent of skunk. It's a scent that can be confused with no other, as anyone familiar with it will agree. Some have worse memories than others, memories that may involve a bath of soap and tomato juice after their dog got too close for a skunk's comfort. For many, the introduction is on a highway, passing a point where an incautious skunk became roadkill; a place where — long after — an invisible cloud of musky odor hangs in the air. Worse yet is being the driver who sent that skunk to the promised land, and is haunted for miles and miles thereafter by its essence, as if the skunk's spirit were punishing you for murder.

For me, however, the scent of skunk is different. At this time of year, beginning to weary of sub-freezing temperatures, shoveling snow and spreading ice on slick sidewalks, I'm on the lookout for any and all signs of spring. One of these signals is the scent of skunk, just as indicative of change as the trill of an amorous cardinal in the treetops, or a wedge of Canada geese in silhouette low against the skyline.

It's not that I'm enthused about actually having a skunk nearby. I've so far been spared the need to bathe my dog in soap and tomato juice, but I never discount the possibility that a skunk will wander into the backyard and feel trapped if Bella mistakes her for a rabbit or squirrel, and gives chase.

I welcome the scent of skunk for the same reason I welcome the scent of wet dog hair. It's for the emotional connections that come with it. After months with few outdoor scents to stimulate the chemoreceptors in my nose, this powerful one always seems to coincide with the loosening of winter's grip on life.

Why the scent of skunk at this time of year? The reasons are found in two urges common to all creatures programmed by evolution to survive: food, and reproducing their kind. After a winter spent conserving body heat and relying heavily on body fat accumulated in the fall, skunks need to replenish their fuel supply. Spring is also breeding season, timed by Nature — as with most creatures — to coincide with livable weather conditions and greater availability of food.

One of the skunk's survival advantages is its diet. The scientist's word for it is "omnivorous," an eater of just about anything and everything that can be found or caught. Skunks feed on small rodents, eggs and nestlings, insects, carrion — other dead animals — and of course garbage, like many opportunistic creatures that live in close proximity to humans. There are even records of skunks raiding farmers' hen houses for a chicken dinner.

Food may not be at its most abundant in March and April, but prospects are improving, and there's the important business of properly timing the arrival of offspring. Skunk kits must be born when they can grow sufficiently to be able to survive the next cycle of winter. With mating taking place in March and April — some as early as February — most kits will be born in mid-May or early June, when life is in full bloom and food supplies are abundant.

Early summer is also a time of death as a counterpoint to new life, often evidenced by young skunks meeting their doom on roadways. It's not all that uncommon to see multiple tiny skunk corpses on a roadway to mark a spot where a mother skunk attempted to lead her young ones across at just the wrong time. Skunks are not my favorite wild creature, and their eagerness to raid a duck or pheasant nest at the first opportunity does not endear them to hunters. But it still tugs at the heartstrings to see a skunk's parenting efforts come to naught in such a conspicuous and final way.

Though skunks are certainly wild creatures, they're more abundant in landscapes altered by humans. Barns, sheds and other buildings often mean more rodents on which to feed, and under-structure denning opportunities. Skunk numbers increased significantly with European settlement for this very reason, though the abandonment and consolidation of farms — and their conversion to other uses — may have reversed that trend.

Skunks are considered undesirable for reasons other than just their smell and their depredations on other small wildlife. They are a high-profile carrier of rabies, and pets bitten by them commonly become victims. The most memorable and heart-wrenching rabies saga was a Walt Disney production, and a dog named Old Yeller. This lovable and protective pet was bitten by a rabid wolf. In the modern world it's more likely that the bite of a skunk will be the vector for this gruesome disease.

Odds are high that I'm in a small minority who react positively to the scent of skunk. But for me — as much as I await the courtship song of the cardinal, or a wedge of northbound geese in flight — the skunk just as reliably tells me that spring is in the air.

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