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Q. Mike: Around the end of October, I smelled a skunk and noticed shallow holes in the yard that looked like an animal had been digging for grubs. If it was a skunk, when can I spread grub control on the lawn?
---Colleen in Southwestern 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, not far from the shore) has skunks toddling around her home, wafting their potent aroma through her bedroom windows. We found a site on the web selling dried fox and coyote urine for skunk control. Do you know anything about such products? Is the 'manufacture' of this stuff humane? Thanks.
---Nikki in a different part of NJ
A. There is an awful lot of bad information about skunks out there, so we turned to "Mr. Skunk" himself, Mephitologist Jerry Dragoo, Ph.D. a research assistant professor in the Biology Department at the University of New Mexico who has studied the oft-misunderstood creatures intensively. (He has a VERY understanding wife.)
Like moles, skunks will sometimes dig in lawns for grubs, like those of the famed Japanese beetle. Unlike moles, skunks are not generally persistent lawn pests. They won't live in the lawn as moles do, and may only dig once or twice as they're passing through an area, especially in 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 first suggest treating your turf with one of the castor oil based products sold for mole and vole control; their smell seems to deter a wide variety of marauding mammals.
The best time to apply grub controls is when the soil is warm and the grubs are feeding on grass roots in the Spring and late summer/early Fall. Beneficial nematodes (Northern or Southern varieties) will destroy all species of grubs in your lawn with in a few weeks, but there is no carry over effect from year to year. Milky spore disease will eventually rid your lawn of Japanese beetle grubs for a decade or two, but it has no immediate effect and doesn't harm the grubs of other beetles. Both are completely safe, non-toxic, and can be applied at the same time. Chemical grub control products are extremely nasty, will poison you and your environment, and you will go to 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 actually taking up residence under the house is a much more common—and serious—complaint, says Dr. Dragoo. "Crawlspaces and open areas under homes make excellent skunk dens", he explains, adding that the subsequent odor can be substantial even if they don't spray. Skunk poop is very potent.
Prevention is key, he says, explaining that the majority of skunk problems are caused by people leaving pet food outside and bagging their trash in plastic as opposed to sealed cans. "Skunks are omnivores—they eat everything", he explains, and easy access to pet food and garbage make an area very attractive for long-term nesting.
If you live in an area where skunks abound—which would be every state in the lower 48 plus Canada and Mexico—make sure that open areas under your house are sealed. Chicken wire is adequate, he says, but I favor the look of latticework. Either way, bury AT LEAST six inches of that fencing 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 your fencing up before you have a mother and litter under your home".
Predator urines? I've never seen any evidence that these things work at all. They certainly won't deter skunks, explains Dr. Dragoo, because skunks don't fear those kinds of predators. The only animal that reliably makes a meal of skunks is the great horned owl. Foxes, coyotes and such have learned they'll get skunked if they attack black animals with white stripes, and the skunks know it. And yes—the collection of these urines is cruel in the extreme.
And don't even think about using the mothballs some moronic web sites suggest; those little balls of toxin are kidney cancer on a stick.
Keeping an area brightly lit often keeps the nocturnal creatures at bay. You could also try keeping an outdoor radio set to an AM talk station on at night, deer repellant, motion activated sprinklers and similar tricks and devices used to deter other kinds of critters.
Contrary to popular opinion, Dr. Dragoo explains that skunks are not in a rush to unleash their powerful sulfur-scented secret weapon; they'll generally go through a series of bluff behaviors before aiming their hienies in your direction and giving you both barrels. If such a terrible thing should happen, Dr. Dragoo agrees with the episode of the "Myth Busters" TV episode that found only hydrogen peroxide and baking soda to effectively remove the smell. Tomato juice apparently only makes you or your pet smell like skunked tomato juice. (The exact recipe for the hydrogen peroxide and baking soda cure is in the Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia link just below.)
By the way, I'd always wondered whether "polecat" was a different animal or just another word for skunk. Dr. Dragoo says it's a skunk synonym—an old British term originally used for weasels ("poultry attackers"). There are no skunks in England, and so Britishers in the New 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)
Dr. Dragoo's 'ACLU site' for skunks; "The Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations": http://www.dragoo.org/
A great story about Dr. Dragoo from The Smithsonian: http://stevekemper.net/work3.htm