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What's Black and White and Odorous?

SKUNKS have been on my mind this spring as we fed baled hay to our cows. First we noticed a large hole in the side of the stack - gnawed out of the square regularity of the bales. I stuck the pitchfork handle into it, and nearly lost it, so the hole was longer than five feet. During the days that followed, we got closer to breaking open the mysterious cavity. One day the pitchfork disclosed the skunk's bathroom, an apparently separate chamber, well inside the original contours of the stack. I was impressed by the neatness and organization this implied; only the striped skunk, the variety we normally see here, makes such latrines.

The scent seemed to grow stronger every day, though I was sure our activity must have driven the resident away. As I pitched each load of hay off the rack, I had to hold my breath not only to keep from breathing dust, but to keep from inhaling the odor that seemed to have permeated the hay itself. It even hung around the area where we fed the cows, though it didn't seem to bother them.

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As we dismantled the stack, I reflected on my liking for skunks. I've always admired their nerve. Even with their smelly armament, they are vulnerable to humans with weapons. A mother skunk denned up under a toolshed not 20 feet from the house last winter, and when her babies were large enough, would parade all four of them daily from the toolshed to the compost pile a hundred yards away.

The dog, the three barn cats, my parents, and my husband and I would sometimes stand in a solemn row watching this performance. Mother skunk didn't deign to look at us, unless the dog happened to growl, or one of the cats strolled too close - then she would merely glance our way and continue on her route. I don't know how she kept from laughing at us.

My friend Cynthia once told me of seeing a mother skunk walking a narrow ridge along a country road, followed by five babies. The parade proceeded peaceably until the last tiny skunk lost his footing and tumbled down the incline to the road.

Mother turned as if to admonish the rest to stay where they were, scrambled down the slope, caught the nape of the baby's neck in her teeth, hauled him back to the top, and deposited him at the end of the line. She resumed her place, and the solemn procession went on - until he fell again. Again she retrieved him and the little parade went on. Again he fell.

The third time she dropped him, then cuffed him soundly on the head twice before returning to the head of the line. Until they were out of sight, the little skunk kept firmly to his place, didn't fall again - a tribute to discipline in the animal world.

Last winter, my friend Carolyn visited during calving season, and we spent most of one night in the barn with a heifer who was having her first calf. We sat on bales and talked about our families and our poetry. About 3 a.m., I became aware of a rustling in the hay on the other side of the barn, and shone my flashlight on two shiny black eyes staring from a pointed face.

We didn't startle him, and he pursued insects and mice the rest of the night, while we assisted the calf's birth. It was a cozy relationship, and the only smells were the not unpleasant ones of birth and fresh, warm milk.

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Skunks visit my compost pile; since it's supposed to be decomposing, I assume it won't be damaged by going through a skunk first. Sometimes I ``accidentally'' leave tasty morsels some distance from the house to minimize the chances that the dog will encounter the skunk, to our mutual discomfort. One night when I was out on the deck enjoying the stars, I heard a rustling directly below me, and shone the flashlight down there - startling a baby skunk who was busily digging next to the foundation of the house. We stared at each other for a minute, then both retired from the scene.

Skunks can be beneficial in any locale, because they are omnivores; they'll eat almost anything. Their diet may include insects, carrion, rodents, small rabbits, frogs, crayfish, lizards, and fruit. Some types eat insects and grubs.

But skunks can cause a lot of trouble if they deviate from their normal habits. Often they displease us when they tear open sack after sack of expensive cattle feed, eat a little, then scatter and defecate on the rest. We constantly struggle to plug skunk-size holes in our old barn, but we aren't always successful.

One winter day I saw an especially fat skunk waddle out of the barn and pursued him across the garden. I thought if I followed him far enough I might make him move away. He'd let me get within about ten feet, then turn, face me squarely, and stomp his front paws repeatedly on the ground, then turn, wave his tail, look over his shoulder, and proceed.

I was so entertained by this procedure that I followed him a couple of miles. I liked his air of confidence. I've seldom seen a skunk scurry, or slink, or in any way seem ashamed of himself. They walk sedately, as if their dress-for-success immaculate white and black gives them confidence - when it's really their cologne.

When we loaded the last batch of bales from the haystack, I was pitching the hay as usual, musing on the way my coveralls had begun to retain it, when my fork struck a hollow and I fell forward. Gasping, I lifted aside the last shreds of hay.

There it was, the empty den, with a few wisps of black and white fur clinging to its rounded contours. Here, during the past winter, a mother skunk had probably raised her babies. A few tiny bones were scattered in the corners, but she and her family were gone, out into the world, no doubt with dignity.

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