Plants and Animals
My 2011 Natural Events Calendar hangs right above my computer so I’m often scanning entries for wildlife photography opportunities. “Striped skunks are fattening up for winter,” an entry read for late October. I’d never photographed a skunk before. Maybe this would be my chance. I pushed the thought aside until a few days later when I received a serendipitous call from my friend Jim. “Hey, Danny,” the conversation started, “I’ve been watching skunks feed in a field near my house. Want to give them a try with that camera of yours?” Eager as ever, I outlined a plan to arrive before daylight to set up a friendly ambush, but Jim explained that my usual technique wouldn’t be necessary. I could simply walk right up to one of the feeding skunks at first light. Dubious, I advised Jim that I’d never successfully approached a mammal with my camera in broad daylight, but I was listening. Jim explained that he’d already tested his theory, without a camera, and it worked. I could hardly wait for Saturday morning when I could put my friend’s plan to the test.
The striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is common throughout Missouri. It is easily recognizable by its black color, long-haired tail and two white stripes along its upper sides, converging at its head. About the size of a cat, skunks are found along forest borders, fence rows, grassy fields and crop fields. They are also found in towns and suburbs where they can become a nuisance, especially if they decide to take up residence under somebody’s porch. Skunks may dig burrows with their powerful claws but often move into dens that have been abandoned by other burrowing mammals.
Usually foraging at the fringes of the day, striped skunks feed on a variety of insects and grubs. They will also eat small animals such as mice, rats, moles, shrews, young rabbits and chipmunks. Skunks also feed on carrion of larger animals when available.
Striped skunks breed in late winter and bear young a couple months later. Typically, a litter size is four to six, and the female cares for the young until autumn, when they disperse. During winter months, skunks become inactive, but they will hunt for food during warm spells. Skunks are considered a furbearer in Missouri and can be hunted or trapped during the legal season.
I arrived at Jim’s farmhouse at sunrise and found him sitting on the porch with his binoculars. “I’ve got one for you,” I heard him say as I exited my truck. The skunk was a quarter-mile away, feeding along a hillside. I was to walk up the hill toward the skunk until I lost visual contact, at which time I would look back at Jim for directions. By the time I was halfway up the hill I lost sight of my quarry so I glassed back at Jim and found him providing animated hand signals, not unlike a duck hunter to his Labrador retriever. A few minutes later I stood 15 feet from a young striped skunk, dangerously close to the effective range of its defensive musk glands. Preoccupied with rooting for grubs, the youngster did not appear to see or hear me as I began clicking the shutter. A moment later it began to sniff the air. As it made a beeline for the woods, I wondered if it would soon be washing the human stink off its black and white fur with tomato juice!
—Story and photo by Danny Brown