Polecats and those little holes in the lawn

By Lynette L. Walther | Sep 20, 2019
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther The striped skunk is what we have here, one of four species found in the U.S. Hog-nosed, hooded and spotted are the other three.

It started up a few weeks ago, those telltale cone-shaped holes in the lawn. Skunks! We don’t have to track the life cycles of grub-producing insects to know when their big wormy larvae are getting fat and juicy and ripe for the picking, or digging, in this case. The skunks have it marked on their stinking calendars, and come late summer, they never fail to show up for the annual banquet.

Perhaps we should be thankful that they are doing a pretty good job of ridding the yard of the grubs, and aerating the soil while they are at it. But in truth, it’s not like we had any plans to stop them. And most of the year we have no indication or even remember that they are about. So those holes in the grass always seem to come as a surprise, until we remind ourselves of who or what is responsible. But make no mistake, the skunks are there the rest of the year, too. Skunks are pretty much everywhere.

According to a Maine wildlife biologist Shevenell Webb, who gave a presentation on skunks this summer at Merryspring Nature Center, skunks are found throughout the nation, but not at elevations over 6,000 feet. However, while visiting Santa Fe, N.M., last month, we discovered a deviant. One night as windows were all open to allow the evening’s chilly (and dry!) temperatures to cool down the house, we had a visit from a particularly odoriferous member of that tribe that apparently had not received the memo that it was not to be found at an altitude of 7,199 feet above sea level. (Yes, it took me a couple of days to fully adjust to the rare atmosphere there.)

I looked up pseudonyms for skunks and was gobsmacked by how many there are: polecat, civet cat, woods pussy, stinker, civvy cat, pussycat, stinky, stink-cat, stink-pussy, piss-cat, striped kitty, hydrophobia cat, perfume pussy, perfume kitty, sachet kitten, sachet kitty, bete puante, black and white kitty, petunia, pussy, stink, stinking pussy, stink-katz, streamlined pussy with a fluid drive, striped cat, white-stripe, woods kitty, black squirrel, black stripe, ciffy cat, damn skunk, damn smelly thing, essence peddler, Flower, hew, honey cat, hump pus, kennel number five, little black kitty, little stinker, one stripe, pew kitty, phew, pisser, piss katz, puddy cat, pussy with a stripe down its back, rooter, rutabager, sachet, scented pussy, scented pussycat, skunk cat, smell kitty, smelling kitten, spotted skunk, striped tail, stripe-pussy, two stripe, Uncle Sammy, whew, white skunk, white-back skunk, wild pussy and Zorro.

According to an online source, a male skunk is called a buck, a female is a doe, and a baby skunk is a kit. If you’ve ever seen the little ones romping about and playing, that comparison is obvious. Skunks can survive a snake bite. They have poor eyesight, but they have excellent senses of smell and hearing. Our cats, perhaps sensing some long-ago family connection, seem to adore the skunks; on late summer evenings when the windows are open, they sit and watch with admiration as their polecat cousins go about their work.

Webb noted that skunks are omnivores and ordinarily are solitary creatures that adapt well to urban areas. Indeed, several families of skunks have been reared from the comfort afforded underneath our neighbor’s garage. Births are usually in May to June, and young skunks are helpless and blind at birth, but seem to mature quickly and can “spray” at the ripe old age of 1 month. Young skunks are more likely to spray indiscriminately, and that spray can be quite accurate up to 10 feet away. Direct spray can cause temporary blindness and vomiting. The odor can last for weeks and can be smelled by other animals up to a mile away. Skunks are active at night and have a limited range of about half a mile to two miles total.

Now is the season when the young are “encouraged” to go their own way in life. We have observed this process firsthand, as the garage-reared babies from next door were pushed out with much screaming and skunk-cursing. They clearly did not want to leave the comforts of home. But with the bounty of grubs ripening up now, there is plenty of food available for those young ones to get established in their own new homes, so we endure a few weeks of disruption in the lawn and encourage everyone to have patience as this plays out by resisting the temptation to spray those lawns, and let nature take its course.

Gardeners have a responsibility to do no harm to our environment. We must stop thinking in terms of killing bugs we don't like. Insects are part of an intricate web that balances itself. There are tiny parasites that feed on the bugs we don't like, other parasites that require insects to survive. There are animal species that depend on the seasonal availability of insects to survive and feed their young. Overall, less than one tenth of one percent of insects are harmful or do us damage. The vast majority are necessary to our environment, and ultimately to our survival as well. It is something all gardeners must learn and accept. That goes for holes in the lawn, too.

A seasonal sign that skunks are digging for grubs. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
Foster kitties are drawn to the “fragrance” of their stinky cousins (polecats) passing through the yard. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
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