The Northeast Earth Coalition

Scents and sensibility in the yard

David Wasmuth is a local environmentalist and amateur naturalist. He is a Rutgers Environmental Steward and the founder of the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project. 

They are rarely seen, but make their presence known.

You may be sitting in your living room on a summer evening, windows open to enjoy the breeze, when you notice a scent that’s a bit off. After some suspicious glances at your dog or family members, you realize that this is not just any odor; it’s the unmistakable smell of a surprised skunk.

Somewhere nearby, someone or something — a feral cat? a curious dog out for an evening walk? — has gotten a little too familiar with this apparently docile creature. Whoever or whatever made that mistake, a lesson has been learned.

The infamous pungency of the skunk gives it a unique freedom.

Skunks waddle awkwardly around, taking their time. Their maximum speed is 10 miles an hour, but why would they need to run? While other animals of this size have evolved elaborate camouflage, the skunk fearlessly announces its presence with a white double stripe down its back that stands out on its nocturnal rambles.

It almost seems like a dare to potential predators. And most predators, either through evolutionary memory or unfortunate direct experience, recognize those stripes and know to keep their distance.

Only owls are unimpressed. Apparently, they lack a sense of smell.

To the skunk’s credit, it doesn’t actually want to spray you. Its stripes give ample warning to keep your distance, but if you approach too close it arches its back and raises its tail, much like an angry cat.

If you come closer still, it will stamp its feet and give a warning hiss. But when it points its rear end toward you, tail raised, you are facing the skunk equivalent of a cocked pistol. It’s time to run. Fast. It can spray up to 13 feet.

And if you (or your dog) don’t get away in time? The folk remedy is to bathe in tomato juice. Other, probably cheaper, suggestions include solutions of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dish soap or of vinegar and detergent.

The skunk just wants to live quietly.


That said, skunks are not bad neighbors, keeping to themselves and causing few problems. I’ve lived in close vicinity with them for many years but have never heard of anyone in Montclair being sprayed. Aside from the occasional odor — presumably the product of an encounter with a naïve non-human predator or a car — the only signs of skunks in my yard are small holes in the lawn or along the edges of the garden, where they have been digging for grubs.

Aside from grubs and other insect larvae, skunks enjoy a diet of adult insects — crickets, grasshoppers, wasps (including yellow jackets), and bees being favorites, as well as snails and worms. They will eat bird eggs and nestlings if given the chance, but as they’re not much for climbing it’s mainly ground-dwelling birds that need to worry.

Like much of our local wildlife, they are opportunists and will eat pet food or accessible garbage left out overnight.  I’ve never noticed skunk damage to my vegetable garden beyond some minor digging, so it seems they’re not especially keen on eating their vegetables.

Since 70 percent of their diet consists of species seen as pests to humans, on balance they are a gardener’s friend. I can accept a few holes in the lawn and garden if it means fewer grubs and yellow jackets.


There is one circumstance where encountering a skunk should provoke alarm about more than a bad smell. The fact that skunks are nocturnal means if you happen to see one wandering around in the daytime there is cause for concern, especially if it seems aggressive.

Keep even more distance than usual and call animal control — it could be rabid. (The same rule applies to other common nocturnal mammals, such as raccoons.)

There’s a reason why that telltale skunk smell is a summer association, like the scent of sun block or swimming-pool chlorine. When temperatures approach freezing, skunks retreat to winter shelter, which may take the form of hollow logs or abandoned groundhog holes; more energetic skunks may dig their own burrows.

During the cold, they shelter in place in a state of dormancy that is not quite hibernation. Males emerge in February in search of mates. Females give birth to litters of from four to eight kits after a gestation of about a month, followed by about two months of nursing.

The kits then follow their mother in single file as she makes her nighttime rounds, staying together as a family unit until late summer. The father takes no part in child-rearing.

If it weren’t for the distinctive smell, and the occasional dead skunk in the middle of the road celebrated in song, we would have little awareness of this strange creature making its nightly rounds just outside our windows.

Let’s keep our distance, as with all wildlife, but it’s fun to think of that mother skunk with her trailing line of kits checking out our backyard smorgasbords.