Warm days put the odor of ardor in the air

Romance: It's best to get out of the way - far away - when boy skunk meets girl skunk.

March 13, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Love stinks.

If you don't think so, open a suburban window, take a drive to feel the wind in your hair, and you're bound to notice the unique spring aroma of skunks in love. Especially this warm, early spring.

"They've spent the winter sleeping, and they breed the first thing in spring," explains Serge Lariviere, a Canadian expert on polecats. "The females are passive in this love story. The males are out there, checking out the scene, looking for a little action."

The boys churr and twitter and screech their love songs. They mark their territory by "spritzing." If they come across a garbage can knocked over by a dog or raccoon, they'll help themselves.

"A little snack while you're cruising the bar scene," jokes Lariviere, who works for the Delta Waterfowl Association in Manitoba and has a Ph.D. in skunk studies.

Love is blind, and skunks are just short of that. Every so often, to the dismay of humans, they look for love in the wrong places: waddling into traffic, falling in basement window wells or squeezing under porches and into sheds.

"They're extremely adaptable. I've seen 30 skunks living under one house," says Kevin Sullivan of the U.S. Agriculture Department office in Annapolis. "Disturbances don't bother skunks, and they're not afraid of people. You know what their first line of defense is, and it isn't pretty."

Humans caught in this annual spring love triangle are reaching out to Sullivan and others.

"Right now, we're getting five to 10 calls a day because people are going berserk," says Laura Simon, urban wildlife director of the Fund for Animals. "They're smelling the stench, and they're very unhappy."

This year isn't worse for skunks than any other year, experts say. The difference? The unusually warm weather has encouraged people to open windows and get outside earlier than normal.

"We get the stinking period every year," explains Simon, who runs the Fund's year-old hot line. "It's not a skunk problem. It's a smell problem."

Skunks, members of the weasel family, give birth to a litter of five to seven offspring in May. They like to burrow their dens in soft soil, and suburban development has created more favorable conditions.

"There's been a gradual population increase through the last 50 years in Maryland, especially on the lower [Eastern] shore," says Robert Colona of the state Department of Natural Resources. "Development has pushed up piles of dirt along roads. There's more outbuildings and more denning habitat."

Simon insists that humans can avoid most direct confrontations with skunks.

"Because of skunks' sight deficiencies, if there are slow-moving blobs around them, they don't mind. It's the fast-moving blobs coming right at them that scares them," she says. "It's hard to get sprayed unless you're a dog."

In other words: See Spot. See Spot sprayed. Smell Spot.

Simon suggests "an old trapper's recipe" to take the stink out of Spot: 1 quart hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda and 1 teaspoon dish detergent.

Like aging Hollywood starlets, dark-colored dogs tend to have "interesting rust highlights" after the hydrogen peroxide treatment, she warns.

"But quite honestly, the owners don't really care because the dog smells so bad," Simon adds, laughing.

In her 15 years of hauling skunks from their love grottos, Simon has been sprayed but once, "and it was my own fault. It was a male and female in a window well. The female was agitated. I was late for a train, and I rushed. The good news is I got to field-test the recipe, and it works like magic."

In many cases, homeowners don't need the help of a professional pest control company to free their homes or yards of skunks. Simon estimates the hot line staff has counseled hundreds of people through the process without raising a stink.

Having a polecat as a neighbor does have its benefits. They eat rats and field mice and gobble up grubs and Japanese beetles.

"Sometimes after we've removed a skunk we get a call from a homeowner saying, `Please, can I have my skunk back?' " says Simon. "They don't appreciate it until its gone."

Just like love.

The Fund for Animals hot line is 203-393-1050. The toll-free USDA hot line is 877-463-6497.

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