Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mephitis Encounter

We've been dealing with finals (and the like) 'round not much time for new blog posts lately.

However, wanted to relay a quick story to you all....

I went out and checked some of my research cameras yesterday morning.  It was very pleasant outside: low humidity and cool.  The wind was blowing with alittle strength from the north as I headed up the trail on the far south side of the property.  Disturbed woodland dominates this southern portion of the site and early successional woody vegetation is pretty thick on either side of the path.  The path also meanders a it's pretty hard to see what's around the next bend, most of the time.

Twice I came upon eastern cottontails that shot off into the brush when they saw I knew I was pretty well downwind of everything to my north with that breeze coming in.  Finally, I reached the edge of the woodland and the beginning of the old field/meadow in the northern portion of the site.  The breeze was a bit stronger here, as I made my way down the small incline along the trail and through the grass below.  I always try to keep my eyes open for turkeys, red-tailed hawks, etc. when I'm out in the open there, but saw none of the usual suspects.

Then I noticed something off to my right...about twenty yards away....bouncing in the breeze along a shrubby pocket that had grown up around a mature oak tree.  At first I though it was a bag caught on some bushes that the wind was blowing around.  As my eyes adjusted, however, I realized it was the bushy tail of an adult striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis).

It shuffled through the debris on the edge of the shrubs, stopping to occassionally investigate certain spots with more effort.  In general, it was so occupied with its work (and I was still downwind) that it didn't notice me.  Eventually, it moved on through the dew-covered grass and out in the open field....stopping occassionally to shake and send tiny droplets of dew flying everywhere.  Eventually, I lost it as it passed over a small rise in the landscape.

I moved forward and circled around the spot where I had last seen the skunk (not wanting to walk into his direct path, but also curious about where he was headed).  As I came up over the rise, I spotted him again, moving away from me....with only his tail up above the height of the grass.  He stopped intermittently to sniff at something in the ground, but eventually headed straight for a large den opening at the base of an old dying oak tree on-site.  This is a spot my advanced ecology students had deployed a camera on previously, and there has been all manner of critter hanging out nearby (see here for photos of the den prior to the skunk moving in, and here for pictures taken from the camera hung above the den opening).  I watched him give one final shake and then disappear into the root system.  That's the last I saw of him.

We had gotten lots of pictures of Skunks on-site during our class exercises in my ecology lab, so I knew they were around.  I was alittle surprised to see them out and active during the day (it was about 8:30 am at that time), but was glad for the opportunity to see him/her with my own eyes.

Interestingly, we had also gotten a video clip of a skunk (probably the same one) active in the daylight last week....

 The clip below was from May 1st at 6:55 am.

Some folks would see a skunk (or raccoon, or fox) out during the day and scream "RABIES!"  But, a skunk active during the day and doing exactly what skunks do (walking around with a purpose, looking through the underbrush for food and then entering a burrow), is probably not a reason for alarm.  In fact, a colleague of mine who is the furbearer biologist for the state of North Carolina once told me that she frequently gets calls from people incorrectly assuming that a furbearer active during the day means it's rabid. 

Not true, she said. 

It's their behavior that's important.  Wandering aimlessly, acting aggressive for no apparent reason, or just sitting in one place showing a total lack of concern for people it has seen....these are behaviors to worry about.  Note that I'm not hoping to give you hard-and-fast rules on how to tell if an animal is rabid.  That can only be definitively determined after a post-mortem analysis of the critter suspected to be rabid.

But....regardless....being able to watch a few intimate minutes in the life of a skunk was a treat.


  1. You know, I didn't get a single skunk on my cameras for my project. So odd! I did FINALLY get a bear though!

  2. I've only seen skunks out in the daylight a couple of times, and never when I have my camera with. I'm not sure how close I would be willing to get to get a good shot off though:). Great little clip!