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A Conversation with a Skunk

What makes you turn and run faster than meeting a rattlesnake? For me, a skunk. I'm not that familiar with skunks, in general. My only dealing with one was when my dog saw one for the first time. Probably thinking it was a striped kitty she went for it and got sprayed in the mouth. I didn't realize what had happened until she ran back to me, rubbed her head all over my pants and threw up on the floor. I gave her the special hydrogen peroxide bath, but she still had to spend the night in the garage. Luckily, she was a smart dog and learned her lesson about striped kitties. It was one of those occasions you don't forget right away. Well, ever.

I was filling one of my bird baths at dawn the other day when a skunk came ambling right towards me. "Whoa!" I said trying to calmly walk back towards the house. I didn't really say "whoa", but for the purposes of this newsletter, let's just say it was "whoa". Same number of letters anyway. "Hey, hey, hey!" the skunk said quickly. "Get back here and finish filling that bath. I'm just coming for my early morning drink!" "Oh, I'm sorry," I said in astonishment, "I didn't expect you to be out this late." "Me, neither," the skunk said wearily. "It's been a long night of foraging and I've worked up quite a thirst. I'm Hibiscus, by the way." I stared at her, frozen in place. "Don't worry," she said. "You're no threat to me. Go ahead and relax." "Thanks," I said, still on my guard. "I'm Joanie." "I know," she said. "You're the one that talks to all the animals. I sprayed your dog a few years back, I believe. Didn't intend to, but spraying is our defense mechanism." "I know," I said. "It's a hard lesson, though. She stunk up the place for days." "Okay, here we go." she said with a noticeable frown. "One thing I won't tolerate are stink jokes and innuendos. It's just rude." "Pardon me," I said nervously. "It's just that we've always made fun of the smell."

"Let me tell you a bit about us skunks. There are five skunk species in North America. I'm a Striped Skunk, the most common in this area. I'm preggers at the moment. My kits are due in a few weeks." "You know," I said. "I don't think I've ever seen baby skunks." "I usually have around 5 or 6," she said. "But, I can have as many as 10." "Oh, great," I said under my breath. "What?" she said suspiciously. "Oh, nothing," I said quickly. She continued, "You won't see them out of their den until they're about 2 months old. They'll start to follow me on my rounds at night, sometimes playing outside their den during the day. They have to learn their survival skills by the time autumn comes when they leave and start their solitary lives."

"Just curious, how do I know if a skunk is about ready to spray?" I asked, thinking I'd better get to the important stuff. "Well," she said thoughtfully, rubbing her chin with her very sharp claws. "There are 3 visible warning signs. First, I stomp the ground with my front legs. Then, I face the threat directly, fluff up my fur displaying my scary stripes and scooting backwards to gain some distance. If the stomp and scoot doesn't work, I'll expose my hind end preparing to spray. We skunks can bend our bodies around so that our face and buns can face the same direction. This allows us to keep our eyes on the target. And, our aim is accurate for up to 10 feet! Or, I can choose to spray a cloud as a getaway tactic and run." "Do you have any predators besides humans?" I asked. "Yes," she said. "Unfortunately, our white stripes serve as targets for Great-horned Owls. They especially like our babies." "Oh, that stinks," I said carelessly. Hibiscus threw me another warning glance. "Oh, geez." I said, feeling a bead of sweat trickling down the side of my face. "Sorry about that. I-I do apologize. Please continue."

She looked at me out of the corners of her eyes and continued. "Let's get some facts straight. First, skunks are not nocturnal. We're crepuscular, meaning we're most active at dawn and dusk, which is why you are seeing me at this early hour. Another fact is that we are not the #1 carriers of rabies. Rabies have not been found in skunks in the Bay Area for over 20 years. In fact, according to California Department of Public Health, only 4% of skunks tested positive for rabies in the entire state of California from 2012 to 2014. And, did you know that skunks are great for your garden? Insects and grubs are a large part of our diet. We eat beetles, larvae, crickets and snails. Even Black Widows and scorpions."

"We're generally solitary except, of course, during the breeding season, roughly January through mid-February. We're not always in the courtship mood and, if pressed, we let loose on our suitors." "Ah," I chuckled. "So that's why we sometimes smell skunk during the night. You've let flee on Pepe Le Pew!" Hibiscus shot me an irritated look. "Oh, sorry," I said quickly. "I didn't mean anything by that. So, so sorry." But, it was too late. This time my apology was not accepted. Hibiscus began to stomp the ground with her forelegs. Her fur fluffed up displaying her bright white stripes as she backed away. Oh no, I thought. Not the stomp and scoot. I took a step backward just as her tail went up. Then, her body turned so that her face and bee-hind were facing me at the same time. This was it. My upcoming week flashed before my eyes. I would be bathing in the special hydrogen peroxide mixture for days. I could see myself tossing a match onto a pile of my clothes in the driveway. My best jeans, too. I would be sleeping in the garage for a week. My dogs would avoid me even when I offered their favorite treat -- cat food wrapped in bacon. This was a nightmare. "No, Hibiscus, no!!!" I pleaded, covering my face with my hands. Hibiscus calmly licked the base of her tail. "Oh, sorry," she said wrinkling her nose. "Had an itch."

Bless the skunks ~ Joanie and Annie

Another Conversation...

A few years back I had an interesting discussion with a Western Scrub-Jay. We talked about how smart and intelligent the corvid family was. Well, the jay did mostly. I just listened. The corvid family, which includes jays, both Scrub and Stellerís, crows, ravens and magpies, are known for their smarts. Too smart for their own good sometimes, but you have to admire them for their cleverness.

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East Bay Times Article

Attracting birds and bees to our yards and gardens is simple, if we provide what they like and need.

Joanie Smith, owner of East Bay Nature in Walnut Creek, says there are five essential elements for success ó water, food, cover, nesting and safety.

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