For reasons I prefer not to explain, I pay close attention to roadkill. I keep a mental tally of the species of animals I observe dead in the road during my daily travels, so I have a good sense for which animals are hit most often and when and where it tends to occur most.
If this year is anything like the rest, the aromatic dead skunk I saw in the middle of the road the other day won’t be the last I see this month. While most of the more common road-killed animals like raccoons and squirrels turn up dead in the road at various times throughout the year, far more striped skunks – whose attractive black-and-white fur makes them
unmistakable – are struck and killed by vehicles as the weather begins to
warm in March than at any other time.
|Striped skunk by Terry and Jo Johnston|
Like most animals, spring is the breeding season for the region’s only native skunk. While they live a mostly solitary life, striped skunks go looking for each other in March to breed, sometimes wandering great distances and often crossing roads with little on their mind but finding a mate. Since they are almost exclusively nocturnal – and most animals are struck by vehicles at night – they are an easy target. Young skunks are especially vulnerable as their hormones rage while seeking to breed for the first time.
Although they don’t hibernate, skunks in New England typically remain out of sight during the coldest months of the year. They may emerge for a few hours in the evening during unusually warm periods in winter, but they don’t usually wander much until they feel the urge to reproduce. And those first excursions of the season tend to be the most treacherous when they are faced with a road crossing.
University of Rhode Island mammologist Tom Husband told me that one reason they are killed by vehicles so often in March is because of their brazen nature. They aren’t afraid of anything, especially when love is in the air. Because of their well-known reputation for spraying a noxious liquid from their anal scent glands when threatened, which can cause temporary blindness and significant irritation, most animals will avoid bothering skunks.
People shun them, too, and for the same reason. And why not? Wildlife artist Ernest Thompson Seton described the smell as a combination of essence of garlic, burning sulfur, perfume musk and sewer gas magnified a thousand times.
Yet because striped skunks have little fear of predators, they apparently have little fear of almost anything that moves, including humans and their cars. In fact, the animals have a close relationship with people, whether we like it or not. They’re comfortable living around homes and businesses, often building underground dens beneath abandoned buildings, under residential porches and decks, and beneath woodpiles and stone walls. Unfortunately, while we are practically neighbors, few people appreciate the animals.
I like to wander my property at night, listening for owls and staring at the stars, and it’s not uncommon for a skunk to waddle past me during the breeding season as it digs in my lawn looking for grubs. One nearly even stepped on my foot and kept going as if I wasn’t there. I was the only one startled during that surprise encounter.
In a similar way, when a car approaches a skunk, the animal brazenly stands its ground. Sadly, it’s a confrontation that the skunk seldom wins.
This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on March 18, 2017.