Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road

Ah, after a long cold winter, spring is finally in the air. All around us is the sweet, aromatic fragrance of ... skunk. Yep, that's right, it's skunk mating season again! This is the time of year when skunks seem to come out of the wood works and they end up ... splatted on the side of the road.

I swear, I drive less than five miles into town to go to work, and there were at least 8 dead skunks along the way. Some of them were on the sides of the road, some in the middle of the road. All those dead skunks makes me think of the old 70s song, *"Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road" by Loudon Wainwright.
"Crossin' the highway late last night
He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right
He didn't see the station wagon car
The skunk got squashed and there you are!
You got yer
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road
Stinkin' to high Heaven!"
Skunks are mammals best known for their ability to secrete a liquid with a strong, foul-smelling odor. Also known as "polecats" in many regions, skunks are actually a form of weasel known as Carnivora. Naturally, the word Carnivora refers to any meat-eating mammal, but skunks not only eat meat, they also eat many forms of plants, changing their diet with the seasons. It is the skunk's omnivorous diet that leads them to garbage cans in many urban areas. They have also been known to enter garages and out-buildings, especially of people who own pets because skunks have developed a taste for cat and dog food. They also like to lounge under porches, away from prying eyes.

A few years ago, Christine and I decided to take a paper route during the summer and although we delivered papers every afternoon, Monday through Friday, we also had to deliver at 3am on Sunday mornings. On these early morning deliveries, my wonderful hubby usually went with us. Of course, out in the county we saw all kinds of wildlife, but one of our routes was in the heart of Harrodsburg and we were privy to all kinds of nocturnal life roaming the city streets. I swear, there was one skunk that was in the same yard week after week after week – it must have been his home territory.

Skunks must be creatures of habit because we usually knew exactly where the skunks would be. They had a tendency to be in the same areas every Sunday morning and these were the homes we always used a flashlight to light the sidewalks. Once you've been startled by a skunk standing two feet in front, you learn to be careful about where you step.

Considering the number of dead skunks that line highways and roads during mating season, you would think skunks run in packs, but skunks are solitary creatures during the warm months of the year. During colder winter months, they will also seek shelter in the crawl spaces of homes or under porches close to a house's foundation. They will dig burrows for dens, or occasionally inhabit man-made or natural hallows.

Most people think skunks hibernate during the winter, but they are not true hibernators. They go through long dormant periods, but venture out every few weeks to find food. Female skunks may "den up" together for warmth, but males prefer to den alone. Mating season usually begins in late January and ramps into high gear by the middle of February.

Skunks range in appearance from species to species - some are black-and-white and some are brown or cream colored. Although they have an extraordinary sense of smell and hearing, they have very poor eyesight. This may account for the number of dead skunks on the roadways - the poor little things can see the huge motor vehicles coming. Skunks also have an extremely short life span, with very few living over three years.
"Take a whiff on me, that ain't no rose!
Roll up yer window and hold yer nose
You don't have to look and you don't have to see
'Cause you can feel it in your olfactory"
Anyone who has ever had a run in with a skunk will know that the most notorious feature of skunks is their anal scent glands, which they use as a defensive weapon. These glands produce a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals which give off a highly offensive "rotten egg" smell. They can spray up to 15 feet away and the odor of the fluid is strong enough to ward off bears and other potential attackers and can be very hard to remove from clothing
"Yeah you got yer dead cat and you got yer dead dog
On a moonlight night you got yer dead toad frog
Got yer dead rabbit and yer dead raccoon
The blood and the guts they're gonna make you swoon!
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Stinkin' to high heaven!
All over the road, Technicolor man!
Oh, you got pollution
It's dead, it's in the middle
And it's stinkin' to high, high Heaven."
So, when you're driving down a country lane on a warm spring night and are overcome with an intense feeling of nausea, chances are it's the overwhelming scent of "od 'de skunk" wafting through the air. Ah, springtime in Kentucky ...

*“Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” lyrics copyright Loudon Snowden Wainwright III from “Album III,” produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye for Columbia Records.