From a continuing series on revolting creatures.
A mother skunk trailed by six little striped kits is a sight at least as charming as ducklings following their mother. Skunks themselves are not revolting. It's the pungent, oily, yellow-green liquid that streams out of nozzles on either side of a skunk's anus that is revolting. Lovable though the creatures are, there will never be a children's book called Make Way for Skunks.
It is the skunk's confidence in that potent defensive weapon that makes its personality appealing. The critters, the size of a small cat but with a wider rump and a bit of a waddle, are the opposite of aggressive. Most of the time they're curious, playful, fearless, and calm (though in late winter, mating season, the males go haywire). A devil-may-care attitude does not serve them well on the highway. The poor creatures stick their tails straight up as a warning to a car. It doesn't work; most of us know the smell of skunk musk from road kill.
Fatal encounters with cars aside, skunks enjoy living near human beings. They're comfortable making a den under a porch or in a garage. (Some musk can leak into their feces, making them less than perfect neighbors.) Omnivorous, they treat our garbage bags like piñatas. They eat vegetables, berries, nuts, mushrooms, lizards, snakes, baby turtles and turtle eggs, birds, moles, worms—practically anything. That "anything" includes bees munched off the side of a hive and jalapeño peppers. To the benefit of the farmer and gardener, they eat mouse and rat nestlings, snails, cockroaches, and beetle grubs. On the negative side, they sometimes eat chicks and eggs.
As skunks cozy up to us, the reassuring news is that they are extremely reluctant to go nuclear. The typical skunk reacts only to truly threatening behavior. Are some skunks more trigger-happy than others? It seems logical that there's a cost to spraying—that it takes some time to recharge, when the animal would be vulnerable—but it turns out the scent glands refill quickly.
Before firing, a skunk will perform a complex warning dance, first backing away from a predator, tail raised as a warning flag, then stomping its front feet. The spotted skunk, smaller than the more common striped skunk, does a handstand that is, disregarding the possibility of subsequent spray, one of the cutest sights on earth. Should the aggressor fail to get the hint, the skunk, striped or spotted, turns its body into an ominous curve, both nose and rear end pointed at the threat.
The animal pops out the nipples leading from its grape-size anal glands, then rotates them like an anti-aircraft gun, at the same time adjusting the spray like a hose nozzle. When face to face with an aggressor, the skunk aims a jet at the attacker's eyes. When the predator is at a distance, the skunk sprays a mist up to 15 feet.
The system is a highly evolved version of the glands for scent marking possessed by all carnivores. Think unneutered cats. Europe has no wild skunks; South America's zorillo and Asia's stink badger have the same capability.
Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.
Photograph of a skunk by Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images.