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Blane Klemek column: The value of skunks

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When I conducted my undergraduate and graduate wildlife research projects in the late 1990s, I lived by myself in the small town of Woodworth, N.D. At the time, my little girl, Emily, who was at home in Minnesota, was just a toddler. Since we couldn't see each other every day, we settled for lively "telephone time" several nights each week.

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During our talks, Emily would often interrupt me in mid-sentence with one of her most common requests of the time. She would say, "Daddy, talk about skunks." Indeed, for reasons only her little mind could know, Emily was obsessed with skunks and listening to stories about skunks.

One of her favorites was the "deer hunt skunk."

It was a September evening, many years ago, while enjoying a bow hunt overlooking a grassy clearing in an oak woodland. My long vigil sitting in a tree came to an end, so I climbed down and began to walk across the opening.

Stopping for a rest, I soon became aware of the approach of what I had thought was a deer. I've heard such sounds before: large bodies walking slowly through tall grasses, swishing, with the occasional thump of hooves on hard sod.

I stood motionless for awhile, waiting for the appearance of the deer, but, oddly, no deer revealed itself. Yet the sound I was listening to remained. I wondered, almost aloud, "What's making the noise?" I was definitely curious, and so I began to slowly walk in the direction the sound was coming from.

As I walked through the grasses, parting the tall stems with my hands and arms as I went, I came at last to the source of the commotion. Cautiously peering over the tops of vegetation as I stepped tentatively forward, I was shocked when I nearly stepped on the "deer."

Below my nose, almost at my feet, were three skunks busily digging into an ant hill. Thankfully, the trio paid me no mind as I dumbly stood frozen in fear while wondering what to do next.

For a few seconds, but only a few, I watched the skunks devour gobs of swarming ants. And then, ever so carefully, I stepped one step backwards ... then another, and another, until the three skunks were well out of sight. Looking back at it now, I don't think the skunks ever realized I was there. If they did, they certainly didn't care.

There are two species of skunks in Minnesota: the striped skunk and the spotted skunk. Striped skunks, the most common species, can be found nearly everywhere. Their smaller cousin, the spotted skunk, is very rare in Minnesota and is classified as a species of special concern.

Because of special muscles surrounding their anal scent glands, skunks have the ability to directionally control where their liquid musk is sprayed or squirted. In fact, it's this characteristic that I have the most fun with when I give my mammal program to school children. I compare this uncanny ability of a skunk to accurately aim and squirt, to the accuracy applied by kids when they aim and squirt water out of their squirt guns. The children make the connection.

Most of the time, however, skunks never have to resort to such drastic measures in order to repel unwanted guests. The black and white pelage pattern serves as a warning to other animals to stay away, too. For whatever reason, such color patterns are universally understood in the animal kingdom as a warning sign to be heeded, not ignored.

If the skunk's coloration doesn't do the trick, the skunk might resort to a few bluff charges.

This, too, has happened to me - and again on another of my deer hunts as I was leaving the woods. I happened to walk by a foraging skunk alongside the logging trail I was hiking on, and so, I stopped for a moment to observe the animal in the beam of my flashlight.

I found that Mr. Skunk didn't much care for the spotlight at all. Instead of going about its business, the ornery fellow lifted his tail and charged right straight for me, stopped abruptly, and then quickly backed up. Twice more he pulled the same stunt - rushed forward, stopped and retreated. I stupidly stood my ground and the skunk eventually waddled off.

Though many people are fearful of skunks and express disdain for them, skunks are truly beneficial mammals to have around. A University of Michigan study, for example, examined the stomach contents of 1,700 skunks to learn about what a skunk eats.

The study determined that insects made up the bulk of their diets during the summer and fall. About 57 percent consisted of insects, followed by 18 percent fruits, 13 percent grains, 10 percent rodents, and 2 percent from preying on birds and bird eggs. Skunks also eat carrion.

I'll have to admit, and I'm sure my daughter would agree as well, I like skunks. I find their unassuming manner, including their striking appearance and interesting habits, worthy of my appreciation and understanding.

Based on their diet alone, skunks should be viewed as valuable, rather than worthless. By giving them the space they need, most everyone could come to know skunks in a different light - albeit at a respectable distance - as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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