One morning while taking a walk in my backyard, I quickly discovered small holes dug into the turf nearly everywhere I looked. The holes were no larger than a few inches in diameter and the sod was neatly turned up into neat little balls of grass and dirt alongside each of the holes.
I thought of the yellowjacket burrow that I wrote about recently, so I walked over to the yellowjacket lair while fully expecting to observe that it had been dug up, which it was, but not all the way. Yellowjackets were still streaming in and out of the burrow, evidently, their nest being deeper than the animal that tried digging them up could reach.
So what was the culprit that decided to cultivate my lawn? None other than a night raiding skunk. A striped skunk for sure, and a hungry one (or perhaps a few) at that. So what was it after?
And why had it dug all the holes in multiple spots throughout my yard? June beetle larvae!
Skunks’ keen noses are able to find fat, juicy white June beetle grubs that live just below the surface of the soil this time of year and are not yet deep enough for fast digging skunks to excavate. June beetle larvae and other grubs are highly prized prey for skunks. The food provides skunks with a diet rich in protein.
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. Its 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’ve given animal programs to 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. Children easily make the connection.
Truth is, skunks won’t spray unless they feel that there’s no other option. A raised tail doesn’t necessarily mean that the skunk is about to release its formidable fumes, but if the skunk turns its business end toward you, your dog or some other threatening creature with a raised tail, then it’s time to retreat and retreat quickly. Depending on the skunk’s mood at the moment, it’ll send a cloud of spray or a surprisingly accurate stream directly to its target.
Most of the time, however, skunks never have to resort to such drastic measures in order to repel unwanted pests. 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. I was once subjected to a bluff charge of a skunk.
Once on an archery deer hunt, I was leaving the woods on my way back to the car when I stopped along the trail upon spotting something moving in a nearby grassy area. I happened to walk by a foraging skunk near the logging trail I was hiking on, and so, I stopped to observe the animal in the beam of my flashlight.
I quickly found out that the skunk didn’t much care for being in the spotlight at all. And instead of going about its business, the little fellow lifted his tail and charged right straight for me, stopped abruptly, and then quickly backed up. Twice more the skunk 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 skunks eat. The study determined that insects made up the bulk of their diets during the summer and fall. About 57% consisted of insects, followed by 18% fruits, 13% grains, 10% rodents, and 2% birds and bird eggs.
Skunks should be viewed as valuable, interesting and harmless creatures. By giving them the space they need, we can all look at skunks in a positive way, not negatively, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.