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To Escape Skunks' Retribution, Know Their Language

November 19, 1998|ANDREA KITAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: We'd love some information on skunks. This past summer I was in my backyard, and all of a sudden about 10 feet away, seven skunks appeared out of the bushes--a mom and seven babies--adorable! What should I do if I meet a skunk face to face?

-J.S., Hacienda Heights

Answer: If you run into a skunk "face to face," you should be able to read its body language.

Skunks, like many other wild animals, would rather avoid a fight than engage in one. Despite the fact that many people think these animals spray their nauseating musk at the least provocation, the truth is they spray as a last resort.

Before that, a skunk will try to run away. If it senses it's trapped or is for some other reason threatened, it'll stiffen up its front legs and stomp them, shuffling backward slightly. It may also make a hissing or growling noise.

Next, it'll raise its tail in warning and possibly walk on its front feet for a short distance.

If it gets to this stage, you're in for trouble, because the next step is the skunk will throw its body over its head, still facing you, and give you a good spray. Back away quickly and quietly, and you may avert it.

Skunk spray is an oily substance that smells like a combination of ammonia, rotten eggs and sulfur. The animal releases it from two glands at the base of its tail in a spray or stream.

If you're within 10 feet, it's a sure bet you're going to be sprayed. Skunks are less accurate between 10 and 20 feet, so you may get just a sprinkling if you're farther away.

Skunks can spray you repeatedly, so in the event you're sprayed, avoid the temptation to strangle the little bugger and back away to prevent another unpleasant surprise.

In short, pay attention if you find yourself up close and personal with a skunk. Don't make any quick moves, don't try to shoo it away, and give it a wide berth where possible.

Pets left outside for the night frequently cause skunks to spray, so, where possible, protect them and yourself by keeping the dog and cat in for the night.

If you or your pets are sprayed, wash with an alkaline laundry soap. To get the smell out of your clothes, rugs and other materials, you can use an inexpensive, effective product called Neutroleum Alpha.

It's been used by wildlife professionals for years and is available to the public through a distributor called Vigon International. Call (717) 476-6300. An 8-ounce bottle is $10.50 plus postage.

*

Q: I have a mole causing damage to my backyard. This animal leaves a mound of soft dirt similar to a gopher's, but there's no hole in the middle of the mound leading to the tunnels gophers create. I've put poison in the mounds and spread insecticide to kill the insects the mole's feeding on, but no luck in getting rid of the mole so far. My wife and I have two children, ages 4 and 6, so I am trying to stay away from applying more poison to their play area. Any help would be appreciated.

-S.D., Santa Barbara

A: Actually, there is a tunnel that opens up into the mound, but the holes often get so filled with dirt it's nearly impossible to find them.

Mole mounds--or molehills--are small and volcano-shaped. They're easily confused with gopher mounds, which are larger and crescent-shaped. When you do find the opening to the mole's tunnel, it'll descend straight into the earth, rather than at an angle as is the case with gopher mounds.

Molehills aren't constructed on purpose. Like gopher mounds, they're actually a byproduct of the animals' endless tunneling activities.

Nearly blind, these insectivores forage for between 75% and 100% of their body weight each day (3 to 4 ounces) and only come to the surface by accident.

You were on the right track when you sprayed insecticide to control the grubs, earthworms and beetles the moles are eating. But this technique isn't completely reliable, and if your neighbors aren't also controlling the moles in their yards, your chances of success are further diminished.

In fact, as the food supply dies off, you may see an increase in the moles' digging and surface tunneling in your lawn before they give up and leave altogether.

Because moles are so beneficial--they turn the soil and eat harmful grubs that damage lawns--you may consider calling a truce and sharing the yard.

With a little effort, you can construct a mole fence to exclude them from your yard's "prime" areas, like the lawn.

To build the fence, bury sheet metal a foot down into the soil. Bend it at a 90-degree angle away from the lawn to keep the mole from digging underneath. You can buy rolled sheet metal at hardware stores and home centers.

Fencing works best in wet areas, like the lawn, where the mole establishes shallow feeding runways that so often kill the grass.

In higher, drier areas of your property, the mole will excavate deeper tunnels for nesting and food storage. Fencing these areas will probably be a wasted effort.

If, once the fence is installed, you discover the mole is on the wrong side, you may need to trap him.

You can live-trap the mole by digging into one of the surface tunnels and placing a wide-mouth glass jar at a level so that the jar's opening is the same as the floor of the runway. Backfill a little in both directions so the animal can dig his way into the jar. Place a board over the ground and jar to protect the tunnel's structural integrity.

Once you've trapped the mole, remove him to the other side of the fence.

Got critter conflicts? Send your queries to wildlife biologist Andrea Kitay at P.O. Box 2489, Camarillo, CA 93011, or via e-mail to andrea@livingwithwildlife.com. Please include your name and city. Questions cannot be answered individually.

For a list of Wildlife Bulletins that provide sound advice on homeowner-wildlife conflicts ($4 each), send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the address above, or visit http://www.livingwithwildlife.com.

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