Love stinks

Skunks are on the move with mating season here. — Greg Schechter/Flickr

Skunks are on the move with mating season here. — Greg Schechter/Flickr

That awful smell on the night air? It might be one of the neighborhood’s otherwise secretive little stinkers advertising for a like-minded partner with the olfactory equivalent of a personal ad.

From mid-February through the end of March, male skunks are on the move, looking for a mate. They tend to wander more widely and to take offense more quickly when their hormones are running high. You know the trusty adage “Don’t poke the bear?” That goes twice for messing with testy skunks during mating season.

Skunks are mostly mild-mannered and seldom in a hurry — why rush when you’re equipped with a stench that has the power to nauseate and temporarily blind your victim? These cat-size mammals can aim a stream of oily stink with deadly accuracy at a distance of up to 15 feet, and can fire six to eight salvos before depleting their arsenal. No one who has been “skunked” would want to risk a repeat engagement.

In nature such stinky armament might be called a clever adaptation. The skunk has certainly gotten its point across to most predators. The five species of skunk afoot in North America come with a warning label; all wear a boldly patterned pelt of black and white that says in effect, “Back off!” Animal mothers of woodland and meadow must surely pass the word to their offspring.

The sole exceptions to the general hands-off policy are great horned owls, which regularly nab skunks in commando raids so swift their victims have no time to spray, and certain foolish dogs who must learn life’s lessons the hard way. If we find skunk musk an odor most foul, imagine how punitive it is for dogs with a sense of smell hundreds of times more acute than ours.

Skunks actually do serve a purpose in the ecosystem. Food opportunists, they’ll eat bird eggs and small mammals, fallen fruit and nuts, but 70 percent of their normal diet consists of insects considered harmful to our crops and gardens. If you see cone-shaped excavations in the lawn, chances are a skunk is trying to help you with your beetle grub issues.

Beware the raised tail. Skunks can shoot their stink 15 feet. — Petrography/Flickr

Beware the raised tail. Skunks can shoot their stink 15 feet. — Petrography/Flickr

Skunks are primarily solitary animals. Mating doesn't create a bond and male skunks don't hang around to address parental duties. Groups of skunks are limited to a mother with her kits, born in May or June, or to small aggregations of skunks that den together in the coldest weather to stay warm. They may remain underground for two or three months, but are not true hibernators.

People and skunks generally tangle over territory. While they prefer to den in burrows created by woodchucks and foxes or in hollow logs, they may eyeball soft ground under sheds, decks and porches and see desirable real estate. Because they are quite near-sighted, they also sometimes stumble into basement window wells; clumsy climbers, they often can't figure out how to escape. This is not good.

You can fend off pushy skunks by keeping garbage tightly covered, pet food indoors and fallen fruit cleaned up. There are no certified skunk repellents, but some people swear by strategically placed mesh bags filled with mothballs. In a confirmed den, rigging a bright light or a noisy radio down there while they are out foraging at night might dissuade them from thinking of your place as home sweet home. Try the Manuel Noriega method — obnoxious heavy metal music at high volume.

One further awful thought is worth mentioning. If you are one of those pet owners who provide a doggy door to permit pets access to the outdoors, lock that sucker up at night, especially during skunk mating season. The idea of a frightened skunk loose in your house with an offended dog does not bear contemplation. Your cat, on the other hand, might invite his new buddy in through the cat hatch to share a nocturnal snack; cats and skunks have been known to get on rather well together, for better or worse.

The solution to the skunk-in-window-well problem is to provide a ramp, i.e., a length of board that can give the skunk a way out. If the pitch is steep, a set of horizontal cleats will help provide traction for your uninvited guest. Place the board v-e-r-y slowly and v-e-r-y carefully to avoid exciting the unhappy skunk.

The traditional remedy for skunk stink may be tomato juice, but there are more effective preparations should your dog be skunk-shot. Visit your vet for proprietary odor neutralizers containing neutroleum alpha that do a superior job, or try this homemade remedy: mix one quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide with cup baking soda and 1 tablespoon of liquid hand soap. Shampoo your dog, keeping the preparation out of his eyes, nose and mouth. Let it sit in the fur for five or 10 minutes and rinse.

The only issue here is that the shampoo, by virtue of containing peroxide, may bleach your dog's coat. Do blondes have more fun? If he's unlucky or too curious for his own good, your chocolate lab may have a chance to find out.