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Skunks!
Q. Mike: Around the end ofOctober, I smelled a skunk and noticed shallow holes in the yard thatlooked like an animal had been digging for grubs. If it was a skunk,when can I spread grub control on the lawn?  
            ---Colleen inSouthwestern Pennsylvania

Oh, organic Chemical-free Garden Guru: Steer me in the right direction!A friend in Shrewsbury, NJ (close to Red Bank in central Jersey, notfar from the shore) has skunks toddling around her home, wafting theirpotent aroma through her bedroom windows. We found a site on the webselling dried fox and coyote urine for skunk control. Do you knowanything about such products? Is the 'manufacture' of this stuffhumane? Thanks,
            ---Nikki in adifferent part of NJ

A. There is an awful lot of badinformation about skunks out there, so we turned to "Mr. Skunk"himself, Mephitologist Jerry Dragoo, Ph.D., a research assistantprofessor in the Biology Department at the University of New Mexico whohas studied the oft-misunderstood creatures intensively. (He has a VERYunderstanding wife.)

Like moles, skunks will sometimes dig in lawns for grubs, like those ofthe famed Japanese beetle. Unlike moles, skunks are not generallypersistent lawn pests. They won't live in the lawn as moles do, and mayonly dig once or twice as they're passing through an area, especiallyin the Fall, when, as Dr. Dragoo explains, they tend to be on the move.

If a skunk does take a particular liking to your lawn, I'd firstsuggest treating your turf with one of the castor oil based productssold for moleand vole control; their smell seems to deter a wide variety ofmarauding mammals.

The best time to apply grub controls is when the soil is warm and thegrubs are feeding on grass roots in the Spring and late summer/earlyFall. Beneficialnematodes (Northernor Southernvarieties) will destroy all species of grubs in your lawn within afew weeks, but there is no carryover effect from year to year. Milkyspore disease will eventually rid your lawn of Japanese beetle grubsfor a decade or two, but it has no immediate effect and doesn't harmthe grubs of other beetles. Both are completely safe, non-toxic, andcan be applied at the same time. Chemical grub control products areextremely nasty, will poison you and your environment, and you will goto Hell if you use them.

Occasional odors around homes are nothing to worry about—again,especially in the Fall when skunks are on the move. Skunks actuallytaking up residence under the house is a much more common—andserious—complaint, says Dr. Dragoo. "Crawlspaces and open areas underhomes make excellent skunk dens", he explains, adding that thesubsequent odor can be substantial even if they don't spray. Skunk poopis very potent.

Prevention is key, he says, explaining that the majority of skunkproblems are caused by people leaving pet food outside and baggingtheir trash in plastic as opposed to sealed cans. "Skunks areomnivores—they eat everything", he explains, and easy access to petfood and garbage make an area very attractive for long-term nesting.

If you live in an area where skunks abound—which would be every statein the lower 48 plus Canada and Mexico—make sure that open areas underyour house are sealed. Chicken wire is adequate, he says, but I favorthe look of latticework. Either way, bury AT LEAST six inches of thatfencing in the ground. "Skunks love to dig", he explains.

And NOW is the time to seal up, he urges. "Skunks will be mating soon,and the females will begin having babies in May. You want to have yourfencing up before you have a mother and litter under your home".

Predator urines? I've never seen any evidence that these things work atall.  They certainly won't deter skunks, explains Dr. Dragoo,because skunks don't fear those kinds of predators. The only animalthat reliably makes a meal of skunks is the great horned owl. Foxes,coyotes and such have learned they'll get skunked if they attack blackanimals with white stripes, and the skunks know it. And yes—thecollection of these urines is cruel in the extreme.

And don't even think about using the mothballs some moronic web sitessuggest; those little balls of toxin are kidney cancer on a stick.

Keeping an area brightly lit often keeps the nocturnal creatures atbay. You could also try keeping an outdoor radio set to an AM talkstation on at night, deerrepellant, motion activated sprinklers and similar tricks anddevices used to deter other kinds of critters.

Contrary to popular opinion, Dr. Dragoo explains that skunks are not ina rush to unleash their powerful sulfur-scented secret weapon; they'llgenerally go through a series of bluff behaviors before aiming theirhienies in your direction and giving you both barrels. If such aterrible thing should happen, Dr. Dragoo agrees with the episode of the"Myth Busters" TV episode that found only hydrogen peroxide and bakingsoda to effectively remove the smell. Tomato juice apparently onlymakes you or your pet smell like skunked tomato juice. (The exactrecipe for the hydrogen peroxide and baking soda cure is in theWikipedia on-line encyclopedia link just below.)

By the way, I'd always wondered whether "polecat" was a differentanimal or just another word for skunk. Dr. Dragoo says it's a skunksynonym—an old British term originally used for weasels ("poultryattackers"). There are no skunks in England, and so Britishers in theNew World used the term to describe these new, weasel-like creatures.And bad guys in the Old West, of course.

For more info:

Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia (citing Dr, Dragoo) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skunk
(Includes correct skunk stink removal instructions from Myth Busters)

Very good basic advice from the San Francisco SPCA; excellentsuggestions and no mistakes: http://www.sfspca.org/advocacy/pdf/pdf_wildlife/skunks.pdf

Dr. Dragoo's 'ACLU site' for skunks; "The Dragoo Institute for theBetterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations": http://www.dragoo.org/

A great story about Dr. Dragoo from The Smithsonian: http://stevekemper.net/work3.htm

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2006Mike McGrath

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