Denizens Of The Desert:
Callisaurus, The Gridiron-tailed Lizard
Sauromalus, The Chuckwalla
Testudo, The Desert Tortoise
Desert Horned Lizard
Spilogale, The Spotted Skunk
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
Spilogale, The Spotted Skunk
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE spotted skunk is an industrious, quick-witted, brave little animal. Few men give the credit that is due her for her good behavior under trying circumstances, her quiet affection and general inoffensiveness. A little spotted skunk has lived under my house now these three years, and in all this time she has behaved herself as a perfect little lady, and has, so far as I know, lived on good terms with all my animal friends. She makes her evening calls about the premises without sound or odor and assists in work by picking up crumbs in the yard and keeping the place comparatively free from insects.
Skunks have their effective means of defense - they realize its efficacy and use it when severely provoked; but they realize also that the fetid oils cannot be produced in unlimited quantities, and so on the whole they are pretty careful to emit unpleasant odors only when driven to it by necessity. This is especially true of the little spotted skunks. For this reason they often live in peace with man, while the big striped fellows are hunted down and shot.
Only once in all my out-of-door experience have I come into unpleasant relations with the spotted skunk, and this was under such circumstances that I felt the little creature was fully justified in her acts. I had been sleeping for some nights on a cot in a little sandy wash on the banks of which was a thick mass of grasses. Several times I had been awakened by a skunk which was jumping about in the grass catching the mischief-making mice. These small rodents she caught by springing upon them and then holding them with her forepaws until she could kill them with her sharp teeth. On this particular occasion the little mouse had in some way the advantage, and, squirming around, bit first, causing the skunk to give a squeaky scream and unwittingly to make life quite unbearable in her presence. I had read in natural histories that the odor of a skunk could produce unconsciousness. I can vouch now for the truth of the statement. The odoriferous, ethereal oil was shot into the grass immediately beside my head, and the odor was so strong that I was overcome and at least for several minutes was quite unaware of all that happened around me. As I came to my full consciousness, I found my eyes smarting and my nostrils inflamed. Had I been so unfortunate as to have been in the direct path of discharge I might have fared badly. Persons who have been hit directly in the eye have been known to lose their sight.
The odor of the spotted skunk is not very lasting in dry, sunshiny weather, and after I burned off the grass next morning I found all traces of the foulsome scent gone. The odor of the striped skunk is much more nearly permanent. Back of my camp on the Colorado Desert I have a beautiful tussock of squaw grass (Epicampes rigens) much resembling, though much smaller, the pampas grass of Argentine. On several occasions I had noticed that there was a beaten circular path beneath it, but who the pathmakers were I did not know. One night I heard something playing under my cot, and, stretching my head over the side, I saw by the aid of the moonlight a couple of playful skunks.
They paid no attention to my intrusion, but went on playing like two kittens. But when I turned over in bed and made the springs squeak and snap, they shot out from under that cot in a hurry and made for the grass tussock. As they went under, they were joined by a third frolic-some companion whose presence I had not suspected, and the three now began a playful, hilarious, spirited skurrying and whisking about under the grass on that half-concealed race-track. This was so ludicrous and ridiculous in its manner that I laughed aloud. Around and around they went, faster and faster, faster and faster, like boys playing tag, until suddenly one of the skunks, possessed of some strange new thought, shot off the grass-sheltered track at a tangent, only to be followed by the others, into the cat's-claw bushes and up the hill. Now I understood the origin of that mysterious grass tunnel and judged by its well-worn appearance that it served as a place of frequent frolics.
The playfulness of the spotted skunk is well known to all who have observed it much. " I never yet," said an old prospector, "saw a little phobie skunk [the Western spotted skunk is often referred to by cowboys and prospectors as the "hydrophobia" or "phobie skunk"] what would n't play with you if it just had a good chance. They get tame just like a kitten, and it's no time until they 're crawlin' all over you trying to make you play with 'em. Onc't I had a little cabin made of palm logs and it was n't very extra built, so that it had a number of cracks in it. Now it beats all how them little phobie cats can get through a crack. I had n't been sleeping inside many nights until I had a visit from a skunk. She came through a crack in the back end of the house every night after that at just about dark. I got to feedin' her bacon scraps, and the first thing I knew she was lettin' me pat her a bit and stroke her soft hair. She used to like to crawl upon my head and down on my shoulder -- and then jump, she would, square into my lap, and then race up my arm to the top of my head again. A feller's hair gets powerful long a-stayin' out in the desert with no barbers around, and that little skunk used to like to come in when I was layin' down on my bed and then play with my locks. And when she had a batch of little kittens, wasn't she proud of them ! She brought 'em into the house there and showed 'em off to me like the proudest mother you ever saw. And the old mother skunk and the kittens used to play around and purr and I'd give 'em stuff to eat, and we just had a great time of it, them skunks and I. It took all the loneliness out of me, and I never will fergit 'em. Never a mouse did I have around the place so long as they was there. Better 'n old cats, they are, to catch mice any time."
My friend, Dr. J. H. Kocher, recently told me of an experience in the open that further corroborates the prospector's opinion of the playful nature of skunks.
"Carl Eytel and I were camping out near the Keyes Ranch in the mountains bordering the Colorado Desert on the north," said the doctor. " The sky was overcast all the afternoon, and toward evening it began to drizzle a little, so that we were concerned about shelter. As luck would have it some trappers who were camping in the vicinity asked us to spend the night in an extra tent they had near their camp and which they were not using. There were lots of things piled up on the floor in a sort of hit-and-miss fashion, and a lot of dry pelts were hanging on a wire strung lengthwise beneath the ridgepole, but we managed to find room to open up the two spring cots which were offered us. Mr. Eytel found a place at one side of the tent, but the only place for me was in the center just beneath the skins. But I did n't mind that; they were dry and odorless and hung at least six or eight inches above my head.
"Late in the night I was awakened by feeling some animal of fair size crawling over my sleeping-bag. I could n't imagine what it was, but finally decided it might be a house cat belonging to the trappers. As best I could in my tight sleeping-bag I kicked about, hoping it would leave me before long, when presently I caught a little whiff of an odor that told me it was a skunk. I called to Carl, hoping he could tell me what to do to get rid of the animal. His only answer, given in a whisper, was: 'Better keep still.' So I did, and I am not ashamed to say that for once I stuck my head under the blankets. I was not going to risk my nose being bitten by a skunk.
"The skunk now began the most ludicrous set of contortions and dances, stamping and alternately pounding its feet on my breast and rattling and playing with those dry pelts above me. It would have been nothing but funny had it kept it up only a few minutes, but when a fellow has a skunk thumping his breast for a full half-hour it becomes not only monotonous, but positively nerve-racking. l again stirred underneath the cover hoping that the creature would move off, but the animal was so absorbed in its play with those dried pelts that it paid no attention to my movements at all, keeping up its demoniacal dance just the same. Unable to bear the strain longer, I called to Carl to chase off the creature in some way, but again he only advised me to `lay low.' But this was now impossible, and I called to the trappers for aid. Providentially they soon came with a lantern, and the skunk, alarmed by their presence, moved off, her beautiful tail hanging gracefully above her. Before morning she came into the tent again, but did not bother me. When I examined the skins next morning, not a single one was found to be injured or ruffled up in any way. The skunk had had a bit of pure play."
I never eat bacon, but once in a while some of the boys who come to see me bring a piece along with them, and, when they go away, leave a bit for my animal friends. Once not long ago when they did this, the odors of the bacon soon drew my skunk, which lives under the house, out from her hole. She came about dusk, but, finding me in the house, desisted from entering just then. As soon as I went to bed, however, she wiggled through a big crack in the chimney and found the delectable meat. I heard her go in; the characteristic wooden-legged, waddling, shuffling gait was unmistakable. I immediately got up, went into the house, and lighted the lamp. There was my skunk on the shelf with the bacon which she was now industriously chewing, working her head from side to side, cat fashion, to get better hold with her sharp-pointed molars. As I approached within a foot of her with the lamp, she seemed dazed for a minute or two by the bright light. Her little round jet eyes shone with much luster as she looked at me. Skunks are afraid of quick movements, as most animals are, and so I moved very slowly and she had no fear of me. Soon she resumed her eating, stopping once in a while to lick the grease off her chops and hands. A lad who was staying with me at the time was very eager to try picking the creature up by the tail and thus carrying her out of the house head down, having heard from woodsmen that there is no danger of a skunk discharging from its scent glands in this position. But I decided to take no chances; the skunk went on feeding and we to bed again.
For a while after that one or more skunks came every night. Sometimes when I went into the shanty to watch them they would retreat to a corner or hide in the closet, and watch me with their beady, black eyes from behind the curtain to see what I was up to. Once one hid in the closet all day. Thus far my furry neighbors had never caused any disagreeable odors in the house; yet I became uneasy lest on some occasion they might be provoked and scent up my quarters. Accordingly I nailed up all the knot-holes and stopped the cracks, and especially one small hole in the closet through which they most often entered.
Feeling that the house was now secure against all intruders, I went to bed outside at night with a mind at ease. About midnight, soon after, I was awakened by something crawling on my covering above me. It was moon-light, and when I peeked out I was surprised to find a little spotted skunk perched on my blankets. I rose up a foot and so tilted the surface of the covers that the animal slid off to the ground. But she almost immediately came back, this time crawling upon my shoulder, whence she tried to jump off onto the low-eaved roof of my house by which I was sleeping. In this attempt she failed, but did not give up until she tried twice again. Persistence is one of the virtues the skunk ever possesses.
The climax came that night when I awoke feeling the skunk's cold nose on my neck and realized that she was trying to crawl under the covers with me. This was undue familiarity for a night prowler, and I quickly drew my head under the covers and waited until my friend decamped to the other side of the house, as she soon did.
In her wanderings that night the skunk finally spied. out how to get up on the roof by climbing onto an out-of-door cupboard, and when next I saw her she was in the act of squeezing herself through an unclosed crack up under the eaves of the house, a place I hardly expected to find her. Her head, half her body, and front feet were well inside, and with the hind, long-soled paws she was scratching vigorously on the boards outside, trying, by ludicrously wiggling her body this way and that, to work herself inside the house. Her persistence was rewarded by her gaining entrance, and she got her meal of crumbs and apples as usual. Through the same opening she made her way out before morning. Had you examined the narrow passageway you could not possibly believe the animal could have got through it. But where there is a will there is a way, even in the mind of a skunk, and it is only too clever in finding it out.