A skunk contemplates making its way out of a live trap. Credit: Courtesy of Meg Holzhauer Haskell

Douglas Coffin doesn’t have anything against skunks. He just does not want them spending the winter denning up under or near his house.

Since the start of September he’s successfully live-trapped 16 skunks on his Sandy Point property and relocated them several miles away.

Now, after four skunk-free days, Coffin is hoping he’s seen the last of them.

“It got to the point that releasing skunks from the traps was something we did in the morning,” Coffin said. “Some people take out the trash, we release skunks.”

Coffin is not alone in noticing more skunks these days on their property or along roadways. According to biologists, this is not due to an explosion in the skunk population driving that trend. It’s simply normal wildlife behavior with skunks being more active in the fall as they prepare to survive the winter.

“Skunk populations vary at the local level but may be more visible this time of year,” said Shevenell Webb, wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Fall is a common time to see many species on the move [and] skunks are abundant in many areas of the state because they can live in a wide variety of habitats.”

Similar to raccoons, skunks adapt well to living near the ample food and shelter that comes with a close proximity to humans. Unlike raccoons, a skunk’s major defense is the ability to spray the chemical N-butylmercaptan, which contains a noxious mix of sulfur-based compounds. The spray is not poisonous, but it can cause temporary blindness if it hits the eyes. It can also cause nausea and vomiting.

Coffin counts himself lucky to have escaped being sprayed throughout his skunk eradication program. He said they first noticed them after seeing damage to their lawn.

“The skunks were really tearing up our lawn,” he said. “That is how we knew they were around in the first place.”

Douglas Coffin inspects a skunk trap that he has covered with a towel to prevent startling a skunk and getting sprayed. Credit: Courtesy of Meg Holzhauer Haskell.

That, according to Webb, is typical skunk behavior, especially when it comes to digging around lawns for tasty grubs.

“Like many wildlife, skunks are preparing for winter,” she said. “They are putting on a few extra pounds of fat and looking for suitable winter dens.”

That means skunks are pretty active in the fall up until temperatures drop below freezing. They are not true hibernators, but do spend much of the winter sleeping or moving around in their dens and coming out if nights get mild.

Skunks are also nomadic, Webb said, and will move along on their own accord after a bit of time in a location.

Coffin was more than willing to help them move on.

Skunks are not territorial and have small home ranges, Webb said, so there was little chance Coffin was trapping the same skunks over and over again. She did say it is important to not relocate them more than 5 miles away from where they were trapped to prevent the spread of disease.

Just to be sure he was trapping individual skunks, Coffin marked one with orange paint. So far it has not come back.

Skunks and humans can coexist, Webb said. It just takes a bit of effort on the human’s part to keep them from getting too close.

“Eliminating common attractants and access points that draw wildlife into your yard can prevent conflicts,” she said. “Secure your garbage and consider planting native plants to attract birds instead of bird feeders.”

It’s also a good idea to keep pets inside at night and seal up any potential areas under decks or buildings through which wildlife could move in.

“Skunks may be most known for their foul odor, but they are a unique and beneficial species,” Webb said. “They are an important predator, eating a variety of insects, birds, eggs and small mammals.”

The first few skunks Coffin trapped were on the small side, he said. After that, the skunks outgrew his live trap so he borrowed his daughter’s larger trap and developed a system of baiting with peanut butter, securing the trap to a piece of plywood and covering it with a towel so the trapped critter would not see him coming.

“We then loaded the trap into the back of our car, drove several miles and opened [the trap] up,” Coffin said. “Skunks are cautious and after we removed the towel, opened the trap door the skunk would look at us, gnaw on their nails a bit, see some puckerbrush and waddle out.”

Once it gets colder, skunks will not be as visible for the next few months, Webb said.

“By late February or early March people usually start to notice skunks again,” she said. “That’s when the breeding season is underway.”

Which is exactly why Coffin wanted the skunks gone now.

“If I had not trapped them, there would be 16 skunks breeding a wobble-distance from our house,” he said.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.