Friday, March 22, 2013

The Smell of Spring

Warm mid-day sun had softened the snowpack, but a late afternoon chill had refrozen the snow into a hard crust. I crunched loudly down my driveway on snowshoes, thinking about warm soup and a relaxing evening. As I neared the house, a familiar odor wafted toward me. Ah, the smell of Gusto, I thought. Gusto is a scent lure that trapper’s use as a “long distance call.” According to the product description, it will entice red fox, grey fox, coyotes, bobcats, fishers, and martens to check out your traps, which is why the marten researchers staying at our house used it on their hair snares for the past two months.

On my day in the field with Phil and Caroline, the final step in resetting each hair snare was to squirt a generous amount of Gusto in a Dixie cup on a tree above the trap. Did it draw in martens? We’ll only know the answer to that question when Phil analyzes the DNA of the hair samples and sorts out the martens from the weasels and other non-target species that may have investigated the traps as well.

Whether or not Gusto aided Phil’s research, it left a strong impression on us. According to the Gusto sales pitch: “When you crack the cap, you will certainly smell skunk but underneath you will detect a sweet odor consisting of a generous dose of castor and muskrat musk. To top it off, Gusto contains 'special agents' and it is put up in a thick base so it hangs in there for a long time.” And boy does it! We could often smell the pungent odor from the very end of our long driveway. On warm days especially, it seemed to radiate from the researcher’s work truck. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but definitely unusual.

But Phil and Caroline left a couple days ago now, and to have the scent of Gusto linger that long seemed a little outrageous. Back at the house, I took off my snowshoes and headed toward the front door. The smell intensified, which seemed unusual since I was walking away from where the truck had parked. I paused for a moment to contemplate this.

Then I glanced down at a cardboard box on our patio, rakishly tipped on its side. The box had once held deer legs or hides that Katie is preparing for our Deer Camp exhibit that opens May 1. Just then it held a very fluffy black tail with white highlights along the outer edges. Of course! It was an actual skunk that made my driveway smell like skunk!

The stark white and black coloration of skunks is not necessarily camouflage for their nocturnal endeavors. Instead, its protective function is to warn potential predators of its distastefulness. Similarly, the bright orange color of a monarch butterfly warns birds of their toxicity.

The books all say that when a skunk is threatened, it first tries to run away from the predator. Well, this skunk just buried its head deeper inside the box. (“If I can’t see you, you can’t see me!”) Luckily for me, striped skunks usually do not discharge the foul smelling contents of their scent glands unless mortally threatened. When faced with danger they arch the back and erect the tail and turn its back on the predator. It may also stomp its feet.

When mortally threatened they bend into a U-shape with both head and rump facing the enemy. They then emit two streams of fluid from scent glands located just inside the anus, which meet after travelling about a foot, finally spreading into a fine spray that can travel up to 15 feet.

This defense works pretty well against mammals with a well-developed sense of smell, so skunks are rarely preyed on by foxes, wolves, or badgers. Large birds are not bothered, though, and great-horned owls are skunks’ main predators.

Though they do not support a diversity of predators, skunks themselves enjoy a wide variety of prey. Insects compose about 70% of their diet, and skunks are one of the main predators of bees. When attacking a bee hive, they wait for the angry bees to emerge from the hive, then bat them out of the air and eat them.

Since bees and other insects, earthworms, snails, frogs, bird eggs, berries, and nuts are all in short supply right now, it is a little surprising that skunks are even awake. But skunks aren’t true hibernators in the first place, and I’ve seen skunk tracks (probably from a restless male) even in January during a thaw. These days, chickadees, great-horned owls, and eagles aren’t the only ones getting a little amorous. Skunks mate from mid-February to mid-April, and naturally become more active during this time.

Skunk’s 4-8 babies will be born in May or June. They are hairless, but somehow already have their striping pattern. Although it takes 22 days for their eyes to open, the little tykes can supposedly spray their musk after just 8 days. It seems fitting that an animal who scientists call Mephitis mephitis, which means “a poisonous or foul-smelling gas emitted from the earth,” would live up to its name right from birth. Ah, the smell of spring!

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013.

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