Wild Ideas: Dances with skunks

A young skunk hunts for the grubs of green June bugs in the author’s yard. Photo by Pam Owen.   wildSkunkFight-19 caption –   The skunk faces off with a copperhead (in the grass at right) she’s dug up from under a large rock. Eventually, the skunk prevailed, killing the 2-foot-long snake. Photo by Pam Owen.
A young skunk faces off with a copperhead (in the grass at right) she’s dug up from under a large rock. Eventually, the skunk prevailed, killing the 2-foot-long snake. Photo by Pam Owen.

A couple months ago a skunk started showing up regularly near the house — and when I say near, I mean right under my bedroom window, judging by the smell it generated. It was so strong it woke me up a couple of nights. 

The skunk likely has been foraging in the bed of giant sunflowers I’d planted along that wall. The cavalcade of wildlife, mostly insects, that have shown up there has offered a buffet of bugs and high-protein seeds. My compost pile is also not far away, so other wildlife, including a raccoon family (see my Aug. 18 column), have also visited the area regularly. All of this activity, especially when it occurs during the day, has given me a wonderful chance to observe relationships among invertebrates and their predators.

Judging by the number of holes in my yard, the skunk has also been enjoying the green June bug grubs there. With long, sharp claws on their forepaws, skunks are great diggers.

Around 5 one recent evening, a familiar stench came wafting through my bedroom window. I looked out and saw a pretty little skunk exploring the sunflower bed. I grabbed my camera and headed out the door. The sun was already disappearing behind the mountain behind my house, and with the long lens I’d have to use I knew getting any good shots would be unlikely, but I try to take advantage of every wildlife photo op I get.

I cautiously moved around to the sunflower bed, where the skunk was animatedly digging for food. Keeping in mind that skunks not only can spray but are also susceptible to contracting rabies, I tried to avoid attracting the attention of this one. To try to see what it was up to and maybe get some photos, I moved in to about 15 feet from the skunk, keeping downwind. Skunks can’t see or spray much beyond 10 feet, but they have a good sense of smell.

Skunks usually just amble about, although I’ve seen them move quickly when they want to. They are well aware of the formidable weapon they carry in their rear ends, so don’t feel the need to flee from potential predators (an attitude that does not serve them well in encounters with cars). Skunks also generally avoid indiscriminate spraying, since they can only shoot six or so loads before having to wait for their body to regenerate more musk. That takes about 10 days, and during that time, they’re more vulnerable to predation.

A young skunk hunts for the grubs of green June bugs in the author’s yard. Photo by Pam Owen.
A young skunk hunts for the grubs of green June bugs in the author’s yard. Photo by Pam Owen.

A skunk will usually give plenty of warning before it does fire, as I’d seen when my childhood dog encountered one and never seemed to get the message. First the skunk stamps its front feet, then raises its tail, then aims its weapons (two nozzles in its rear end that it can aim independently), often standing up on its forepaws for better aim.

The behavior of the skunk in my yard didn’t look so much erratic as exuberant — what might be expected from a young, healthy animal excited about hunting. It moved rapidly down the wall until it came to a big rock that secured the door to my crawlspace, which my landlord had already planned to replace. The door has sufficient gaps around it that small wildlife can easily access the crawl space. I often see skinks, which love to hunt and sun on that south-facing wall, duck through the gaps.

Suddenly the skunk starting jumping onto and around the rock, then dug furiously under it. I couldn’t see what it was after, since it was downhill from me and grass obscured much of my view. Eventually I saw something scaly flipping in the air and cringed to think the skunk had gotten hold of a large skink.

The skunk finally seemed to have vanquished her opponent, then turned around and quickly moved back up along the wall and around the corner of the house. I carefully made my way over to see the victim and was surprised to find a copperhead that was about two feet long. It had a large tear in the middle of its back and punctures in its head. Skunks are one of the few animals that attack copperheads, usually eating them, but this was the first time I’d seen one do it, and its ferocity and quickness was impressive.

I went to find the skunk, and saw her continuing in her foraging in the yard for grubs, then exploring under my porch, then back to the grubs. She was dizzying to watch.

Just across from the sunflower bed is the old vegetable garden, now a tall forest of weeds, where I have a small compost pile. A tiny bed of goldenrod and nasturtiums are a few feet from that. The skunk kept running around the beds, obscuring my view, so I found my pursuit tricky. It became a dance: Trying to maintain a safe distance, I went forward when the skunk moved away from me, then backpedaled when it turned back toward me.

With the light fading, I finally decided I had gotten all the shots I was going to get and went inside. Watching the skunk from the kitchen window, I saw her digging for grubs at the edge of the yard. I turned away for a minute, and she was gone. The snake lay where it had died for two days, then disappeared overnight.

(For more about skunks, see my Dec. 27, 2012, column.)

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 284 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

Comments are closed.