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Polecat Ponderings

Polecat Ponderings


By John Pollpeter

Often we don’t give them much mind. We smell them dead on the road or checking out our campsite late in the evening. Skunks, or locally known as “polecats,” are a unique member of our Purchase Area ecology.  The term “polecat” comes from a close relative found in Eurasia. The name transferred with European settlement. It is an old French word meaning chicken- “poule.” So in essence, polecat means “the cat that eats chickens.” The word “skunk” comes from the Algonquin name, as does other common American animals like moose and opossum.

One thing that makes them so distinctive is their black and white coat color, which varies considerably in Calloway, Trigg, and Marshall counties. You will often see solid white, solid black, even pinkish skunk’s raid picnic tables throughout campgrounds and backyards. One local theory about different coat colors is the isolated nature of the Land Between The Lakes peninsula makes their population genetically unique.

Awe....What a cute little "Polecat!" Staff photo
Awe….What a cute little “Polecat!” Staff photo

In February, after a long sleep or torpor, male skunks begin to appear. These male skunks start to search for wintering grubs, insect nests, frozen carrion, and receptive females. During most of the winter, these stinky fellows spend their time holed up in a stump or rock crevice avoiding the colder temperatures. In many cases, they den up with several other skunks. Skunks are not true hibernators like bats and groundhogs. A skunk’s body does not drastically change to cope with winter.

Often thought to be members of the weasel family, such as otters, mink, and badgers, recent DNA work has put skunks into their own family, Mephitidae, which oddly enough means “stinkers”. They can be found in both tall grass prairie and ridge top forests, but prefer the edge habitat in between  In good habitat, there can be a skunk for every six to eleven acres.  Skunk is an eclectic eater usually eating anything they can find. Skunks eat bees, wasps, snakes, rodents, road kill, and any type of vegetable matter. European settlement and the fragmentation of forests have allowed the striped skunk to expand its range.

Their poor eyesight and lazy demeanor can give humans a sense of relief when dealing with the “business end “of this animal. Its strong chemical weapon has shown to be an effective deterrent for most predators. This pungent odor can be noticed up to 1 1/2 miles away. Skunks can aim these scent glands behind it, to the sides and even in front of its body. They can shoot accurately up to fifteen feet. So, don’t be fooled. These glands hold up to four tablespoon of a volatile odor giving it the ability to shoot off five to six rounds. (Scroll down for a recipe to rid a pet of skunkiness)

Oddly enough, skunks or their burrows rarely stink.  Skunks don’t want to waste this valuable defense, so they will often give several warnings prior to emission. Stomping of feet, clicking of teeth, and rising of their tail should give even the most unobservant enough warning to avoid spraying.  Most people can outrun the fastest skunks; Skunks run about six mph.  Also, skunks are not great climbers. Only the spotted skunk of Eastern Kentucky forages in trees.

Despite this, skunks main predatory pressure is great horned owls. These large owls lack a sense of smell. Owls can easily see their characteristic black and white stripes, which skunks use as nocturnal warning coloration. This strong chemical can temporally blind, disorient, and make life miserable for human or owl alike.

Skunk at Land Between The Lakes, Photo by Kelly Sellers
Skunk at Land Between The Lakes, Photo by Kelly Sellers

As unique and virtually harmless as they are, skunks are the number two vector for rabies in wild animals (dogs & cats tend to spread it to humans more); raccoons are number one. The last skunk/ human transfer of rabies happened in 1981.

Rabies transfers to skunks via the skunk’s tendency to eat carrion. Luckily, rabid skunks can easily be avoided by walking away from the slow-moving critter. Skunks out during the day, stumbling, covered in ticks, poorly groomed, and frothing at the mouth are the strongest indications to avoid them at all costs. Call a conservation officer or animal control personnel if you notice this behavior.

Despite the seriousness of the rabies, skunks are typically harmless and non-aggressive. These lovable “polecats” provide a valuable job for us by reducing harmful insects, rodents, and rotting road kill. So, take your time driving down the road at night and please yield for those pondering “polecats.”

Recipe for getting out the stink

The common cure is tomato juice, which for a time may mask the smell. In the end, you will end up with a pet that smelling like a skunky tomato.

Try this recipe which has shown better success.

  • Mix a solution of one quart 3% hydrogen peroxide, a ¼ cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon of detergent together, rinse and repeat.
  • Best to do procedure outside and mix on the spot. Do not store solution it will lose effectiveness and may continue to react and break sealed container. On occasion, it can bleach your pet.

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