Skunk stories

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Just like fish stories, it seems everyone has a skunk story to tell. I have many, but my favorite one happened a few years ago in the spring, when I was getting ready to teach education programs at Greenbelt Forest Preserve. Before the students from a local school arrived, we were busy unloading supplies and setting them out around the preserve. When we returned to the van, we found a skunk sauntering right up the open lift-gate, looking curiously like he might climb in! We froze, chanting in a hushed tone to ourselves, “Please don’t go in there, please don’t go in there.” Either our chants worked, or he realized the preserved insects in the cases he was checking out were not a good meal. He casually wandered back to the brushy field and was long gone by the time the bus arrived.

 

Not surprisingly, the Latin name of striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) means ” bad odor.” Until recently, members of this family, including 10 New World skunks and 2 Asian stink badgers, were included in the same mammal family as weasels. This group is now considered part of a separate family entirely, Mephitidae, which is characterized by black and white fur (warning coloration) and special glands that produce a foul musk.

Striped skunks are the only species of skunk in Illinois and are found commonly throughout Lake County, Illinois. They utilize a wide variety of habitats, always within reach of permanent water, from forest edges to grassy fields. Chiefly nocturnal, striped skunks locate mice, eggs, insects, and berries by their sense of smell and hearing, often digging and rooting around in soil for their favorite critters. While they are generally solitary animals, small groups have been known to den together in winter for warmth rather than companionship. While they do become dormant when temperatures dip below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, skunks are not hibernators, and are often active on warmer winter nights, becoming increasingly active during their breeding periods between February and March.

As breeding season begins, skunks emerge from dens, which are typically abandoned underground labyrinths from other animals such as woodchucks and fox. In a pinch, a skunk will dig its own very simple den. Regardless, skunks will almost always build a nest of leaves inside its burrow, in a very entertaining way, backing into the entrance hole with a giant mouthful of leaves as the caboose.

After mating, an adult female will continue to use dens, albeit different ones than in winter, to raise her 4-8 babies on her own, while the adult male returns to his solitary life. Young are typically born in May and will stay close to the mother, often following in a single file line, like fuzzy little ants marching, until late June or July.

Most skunk stories people tell me are different from mine, in that they almost always focus on what skunks are most known for: stinky spray. Skunks themselves are not foul-smelling animals, nor are their dens. The musk they create as a form of self-defense, is secreted by two internal glands at the base of the tail. Skunks have control over these scent glands and can form a stream or fine spray of the phosphorescent fluid that can glow at night and travel up to 20 feet. The scent glands contain only about 1/2 an ounce of the volatile, sulfuric fluid, which is used up in about 5 rounds of spraying. Since a skunk’s body can only produce about 1/2 an ounce of musk a week, it is truly a defense of last resort.

Skunks generally put up with a considerable amount of abuse before resorting to musking. When threatened, they will give several warning signs from stamping their front feet loudly, to clicking their teeth while hissing and growling. If that doesn’t do the trick, they have even been seen walking short distances on their front feet, their tails held high in the air, like some kind of a circus act. If all else fails, skunks will raise their tails, stand all their hair on end, twisting their bodies into a U-shape with both head and tail facing the threat, and let it fly. Sometimes, even after all of this, skunks can still fall victim to predators such as great horned owls and coyotes.

While it can be a positive and memorable experience to see skunks, from a distance, on a hike in our Lake Country Forest Preserves, sometimes they can be uninvited guests near our homes. By reducing elements, such as food, water, and shelter, that skunks require for survival, we can make areas around our homes less attractive real estate for wildlife. For more tips like this on living with wildlife, as well as a calendar of events that will get you out in the Lake County Forest Preserves this spring, visit us online and take a look at our newest edition of Horizons magazine.

Bird-eat-bird world

Post by Jen Berlinghof

I remember the first time I saw it happen. It was a frigid Sunday in February, sixteen years ago. I had just started working for the Lake County Forest Preserves. The deep cold, the kind that temporarily freezes your eyelashes together every time you blink, kept potential hikers away from Ryerson Conservation Area that day. I ventured out only to fill the bird feeders, and the chickadees, juncos, cardinals, and woodpeckers quickly gathered around for a feast. I thought they would be my only visitors of the day. Then, a cacophony of bird wings ruptured the quiet. Bird visitors fled from the feeders in all directions. In a low hanging branch of a nearby oak, one bird remained: a Cooper’s hawk. It was devouring a mourning dove that had just been pecking around under the feeders only moments before.

Cooper's hawk eating birdWhile perhaps shocking the first time you see it, Cooper’s hawks targeting bird feeders has become a more common occurrence over the years. These medium-sized hawks with long, striped tails, are forest dwellers that specialize in darting nimbly through the woods in pursuit of their favorite food—other birds. Rock doves and mourning doves are common prey, easy targets at bird feeders, which the hawk captures in its sharp talons and kills by squeezing.

According to data from Project FeederWatch, a citizen science survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, there has been a significant increase of Cooper’s hawks visiting bird feeders over the past 25 years. There are a multitude of reasons behind this rise in visitation. Hawk populations in general have increased since the ban of DDT in the early 1970s, a pesticide that caused the thinning of egg shells in raptors and other birds.

Additionally, there has been a significant increase backyard bird feeding. Over 40 percent of American households report feeding backyard birds, which congregates a Cooper’s hawk’s favorite foods into one big buffet. Scientists have found that this growing food source may contribute to some hawks staying put during the winter in lieu of migrating each fall. Research thus far has not provided evidence that these newer winter residents have caused significant declines in songbird species at feeders.

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It’s fascinating to find the food chain in action in our local forest preserves and even our own backyards. While the winter bird feeder season is ending soon, we are on the precipice of spring when many other animals will rise from various forms of winter “sleep.” Others will migrate back from afar.fox

Each spring our interactions with wildlife tend to increase. The spring issue of our quarterly Horizons magazine, features an article on “Living with Wildlife.” The feature includes tips on how to best interact with animals that have found suitable habitat in your backyard or other urban areas. By remembering a few key factors about living alongside wildlife, we can avoid potential problems, and enjoy the excitement that these animals bring to our backyards and communities.

 

 

Turtle Champions

Post by Allison Frederick

109 adopted turtles!

bltu-20161104-004Our inaugural campaign to enhance conservation efforts and further protect an endangered species was a huge success. Donations poured in from Lake County and beyond (as far away as California!) to adopt baby Blanding’s turtles, allowing us to continue our head-starting program and field work next summer. Continue reading

Des Plaines River Trail Challenge

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The trail is complete! The final section of the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway was completed in late 2015. This fulfills a vision 54 years in the making—an unbroken greenway along the Des Plaines River. The contiguous 31.4-mile trail spans the entire length of Lake County, Illinois. To celebrate this amazing gem, we at the Lake County Forest Preserves are challenging you to travel the entire length as part of our Des Plaines River Trail Challenge. Last year, Allison and I hiked the entire trail and chronicled it here on the blog. This month, we’re taking you on the water with us to highlight the lifeblood of this vision—the river itself.

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Hordes of hummingbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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For me, most days on the job consist of time in my “office” outdoors—a woodland, prairie or wetland in the Lake County Forest Preserves—with my “clients”—students, teachers, and families interested in learning more about local nature. On those rare days spent plunking away at a computer indoors, the photo above is my view. Recently, this view is bustling with activity, as hordes of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzz around the feeders, bulking up for a long flight south.

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Dwindling lights

Post by Jen Berlinghof

At a recent Firefly Campfire at Ryerson Conservation Area, kids and adults alike were flitting around, as fast as the fireflies they were trying to catch. For many of the children, this was their first time experiencing the age-old summer tradition of capturing living light. While the woods that night sparkled like the fourth of July, many of the adults lamented that their yards didn’t have many fireflies—certainly not like the numbers they remembered chasing as children. Turns out they may be on to something.

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Widespread anecdotal evidence of these dwindling evening displays have prompted scientists to take a look at possible reasons. One big culprit to the demise of these bioluminescent beetles seems to be the one thing that makes them so special: light. Continue reading

Saving the Blanding’s Turtle

Post by Allison Frederick

It was [dare we say] a perfect June day. Mostly sunny. Air temperature hovering around 75 degrees with a gentle breeze blowing off Lake Michigan, a mere 600 meters from where we stood. Sandhill cranes were bugling nearby in the marsh. Yellow warblers sang from the reeds, as we approached with 99 juvenile Blanding’s turtles. The young turtles were still quite small at 8 centimeters long and a mere 80 grams, but ready nonetheless for release into their natural habitat.

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