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.

Virtual camouflage hike

Leaves throughout the forest glowed gold against a backdrop of graying sky as I left Ryerson Conservation Area yesterday afternoon. This morning—as I entered the same preserve along the same road—the dark, skeletal branches were completely visible, stripped of their vibrant leaves that now lay in muddied piles on the forest floor.

These days of November mark a change from crisp colors to muted tones, which offer the perfect backdrop for animals to hide using camouflage. Lake County Forest Preserve educators often teach the concept of camouflage during environmental programs, where students hike in search of animal hides and mounts that have been hidden along the trail. Teachers and scout leaders, peruse our variety of school and scout programs to find a great fit for your group this year. Following is a virtual version of our camouflage hike. Continue reading

“Flying” to a feeder near you?

One of our volunteer naturalists recently shared a story of an exciting discovery she made at her bird feeders. She loves to tell anecdotes about the slew of birds that frequent her backyard feeders during the day. However, this time her visitors were not birds, and they appeared in the middle of night. She had seen odd things at night when passing by the windows that looked out towards her yard: a bird feeder swinging wildly with no wind and shadows cast by the moonlight that moved in a herky-jerky scuttle up  nearby trees. It wasn’t until one night this winter, with the flick of a light switch, that she caught these mysterious critters in action: Continue reading

The winter world of cottontails

Now that the icy days of January have arrived, everyone in my house has that cooped up feeling and needs to get outside for a view of the expansive winter sky. We need to breathe a bit of fresh air, regardless of how cold it might be. At dusk, my sons and I have been hiking a nearby trail that takes us through scrubby meadows and thickets. During these forays, the boys are often loud and boisterous—until they flush out a cottontail rabbit. They quickly hush. We spend the rest of the hike searching for “our” rabbit (or signs of it) as we crisscross the worn network of trails trodden with tracks.

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Chipmunk song

Last week as I was leading a group of adults on a fall color hike, our collective gaze turned quickly from the canopy of coppers and golds to the forest floor as we watched the flurry of chipmunk mischief unfold. We huddled around, marveling at the energy of these charming rodents.

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Shrew crossing

While we revel in the slow pace of these last dog days of summer, sipping one last lemonade on the porch or wandering down one last stretch of beach, there is another mammal pulsing with life that has no such concept of slowing down. One of the most abundant mammals in Illinois, the shrew lives its life entirely in the fast lane—tunneling about a foot below the ground’s surface.

There are three species of shrews that live in Lake County, Illinois. The most common species, and largest at about 4 inches long with a 1-inch tail, is the lead-colored short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). The short-tailed shrew lives in a variety of habitats from forests to grasslands and typically only lives 1-2 years.

The least shrew (Cryptotis parva), at about 3 inches long, can be distinguished by its cinnamon-colored fur and extremely short tail. Least shrews are most commonly found in open grassy areas. About the same size as the least shrew, the masked shrew (Sorex cinereus), appears grayish-brown with a longer tail and prefers low wet areas such as floodplains.

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Year of the Bat

Post by Allison

Amazing. Fascinating. Adorable. Essential. These are the first words that come to mind when I think about bats. Would you use the same descriptors? 

Bats are highly beneficial and play a vital role in maintaining the balance of nature. They help control insect pests and are vital pollinators and seed-dispersers for countless plants worldwide. Yet the world’s only flying mammal is still among the most feared and misunderstood of animal groups. Continue reading