An Ode, Or Of Skunks in Arlington

By Steve Young and Lisa Stern

What happened to Arlington’s skunks?  A tale of elusive skunks in Arlington:

What happened to Arlington’s skunks?  A few years ago, when now-retired Arlington County Natural Resource Specialist Greg Zell conducted the first natural resources inventory of Arlington County, I recall that his nemesis mammal was the familiar striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). Although common in neighboring areas, Greg could not confirm any recent skunk sightings in Arlington. Apart from rumors, they just could not be found.

As described in NatureWorks, the striped skunk, about the size of a house cat, can easily be identified by the white stripes on black fur that run from head to tail, each skunk having a unique stripe pattern. Found only in North America, striped skunks tend to live in open areas with a mix of habitats like woods and grasslands or meadows, and usually are never further than two miles from water. Skunks mate from mid-February to mid-March and the babies (an average litter of five to six) are born about two months later. Baby skunks, blind and deaf when they are born, will nurse in the den for about a month and a half. And even after they leave the den, they may stay with their mother for up to a year (http://www.nhptv.org/natureworks/stripedskunk.htm). So, where were Arlington’s skunks?

Photo of a skunk standing in dried grass. The skunk is arching its back and has its tail rasied.

Photo by Wallace Keck, National Park Service.

I have intermittently operated a game camera in my back yard for the last several years. Several days ago, I finally uploaded its last set of images to my computer and took a quick look. The batteries had died in late October 2017 and I had neglected it, finally bringing it indoors where it sat around for weeks. Scrolling through the thumbnails, I saw familiar images of miscellaneous squirrels, birds, raccoons, rabbits, foxes, opossums, roaming cats, and a funny-looking guy watering plants and mowing. But then, on October 24, 2017, shortly before the batteries died, there it was – one unmistakable picture of a skunk! Arlington does have skunks!  Since the skunk is primarily nocturnal, it is not surprising that I had not seen one during daylight hours. They sleep in burrows during the day and hunt at night. Interestingly, skunks usually don’t dig their own burrows, but tend to look for an abandoned burrow or find a natural hollow under a tree or building (NatureWorks). So, I had found my one skunk.

Black and white photo of a skunk. Skunk is at the bottom of the frame.

Photo by Steve Young (game cam photo).

But, apparently, there were more. Alonso Abugattas, the Natural Resource Manager for Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation, subsequently informed me that as of May 2018, he was aware of several other confirmed skunk sightings: one Ballston roadkill, two golf course videos, and an animal control officer who was sprayed by a skunk she was rescuing from a window well near the Fairlington neighborhood. (Some gratitude!) NatureWorks notes that, since it isn’t easy for a skunk to outrun a predator, the striped skunk has developed a unique defense system. When threatened, if it can’t run away, it tries to frighten the predator by arching its back, raising its tail and turning its back on the predator. If this doesn’t work, the skunk will spray its predator with a stinky fluid that also stings the eyes, giving the skunk time to escape. A skunk can spray fluid as far as twelve feet! So, one doesn’t necessarily want to have a close encounter.

In addition to Alonso’s information, Cliff Fairweather, Natural Resource Specialist at Long Branch Nature Center, mentioned that skunks (with their webbed toes and claws) dig for grubs and leave conical depressions in the ground.  NatureWorks adds that skunks are omnivores, and will eat insects, small mammals, fish, crustaceans, fruits, nuts, leaves, grasses and carrion. So, I had yet another clue that the skunk exists in Arlington—maybe that’s who dug up my back yard recently!

My game cam is now redeployed, and I am eager to see what other unexpected critters may turn up. Perhaps, at long last, the elusive Chupacabra….

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