The skunk checks off a box on two of my Common 10 lists; it’s one of the most common mammals in this part of the Appalachians as well as one of the most common nocturnal animals in the area.
According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, just one type of skunk lives in this area of Virginia, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis).
The striped skunk usually gets all the press, and rarely is any of it good. The truth is, though, that skunks are a positive part of our environment and, especially if you’re a lawn lover, they can even be a good friend to a suburban yard. (Not to a suburban dog, though – and we’ll get to that in a a minute.)
Back to a reason to love a skunk: skunks love grubs! Grubs, the larval stage of the June beetle, spend their youth munching on the roots of plants, particularly enjoying the roots of your nice green lawn. Skunks, in turn, enjoy digging small depressions in order to find themselves a grub snack. Grubs are their grub! (Classic nature nerd joke. Why don’t I hear you laughing?)
Before digging holes in your lawn, though, grubs will help reduce your yard’s grub population by getting the easy-to-dig grubs out of your mulched flower beds. This helps aerate and turn over the soil and does the garden plants not one iota of damage, as far as I can tell.
In the wild, skunks feed on insects in the leaf litter of the forest or the rich soil beneath a meadow, not to mention berries and fruits, and ground nesting birds and their eggs.
Yes, they do spray the most ungodly stink, but only as a defense mechanism, and only after fair warning.
Skunk’s Fair Warnings:
- ‘Mephitis” comes from the Latin for foul odor or stench emanating from the earth and is associated with the demon devil Mephistopheles, so even the animal’s scientific name lets you know that its stink is worse than a devil’s fart.
- For those animals that can’t read, the high contrast coloration of the skunk’s black and white patterned fur is a warning of poison or foulness within. In diurnal animals, bright colored patterns such as red and black (ladybug), yellow and black (monarch caterpillar), or red, yellow, and black (coral snake) warn potential predators away. Since bright colors don’t show up well at night, nocturnal animals stick to classic black and white as their warning signs.
- When it feels threatened, a skunk will back up and begin to stomp its front feet at you. This is your clue to calmly and quickly remove yourself from its general area.
- If the stomping doesn’t scare you off (you giant, scary predator) the skunk will then begin to lift its back feet off the ground and assume a handstand position. At this point you’d better multitask: run and pray at the same time.
- From the handstand position, the skunk will bend until its hind end is pointed directly at your face. I hope you never have to look down the barrel of that stinking gun because, odds are, no one will want to look at or smell you for weeks afterward.
More often than a human target, though, it’s a pet dog that gets skunked. There are many purported remedies to help counter the malodorous sulfur compounds in skunk spray, from tomato juice to vinegar, baking soda, and even specialty enzyme washes. If your dog is skunked, you’re likely to try them all – please remember to use products that will be gentle to the dog’s skin.
Better yet, avoid the problem all together: don’t let the dogs out at night if you know there are skunks in the area. Skunks are slow, plodding creatures, and a bounding dog will likely catch the skunk and get sprayed before the skunk can get away.