While Valentine’s Day has come and gone for folks in the Northeast, its safe to say romance, and in this case, gland secretions, still linger in the March air for many of the region’s wildlife populations.
Being in the wildlife control industry, mid-February tends to signal a spike in my phone usage and “windshield time” with calls of pungent odors in the crisp night air and depredation issues on livestock with Tasmanian-devil-like pandemonium. It spells an important milestone time of year for two prominent members of the mammalian super-family Musteloidea - specifically the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and the American mink (Neovison vison). Why the sudden spike in activity during this time of year? Breeding season of course!
Can’t you smell that smell?
In the case of skunks, females will seek out den sites in the fall. In thickly wooded areas this includes root systems, rock caverns, under logs or in established woodchuck burrows. In the urban setting however, this means the undersides of garages and sheds, as well as dirt basement crawlspaces and underneath hollow stairs. Females will commonly den together - with several females all sharing the same den site in colder climates. (My personal record is 12 skunks from under one tool shed!) Typically once the start of “breeding season” commences, the males of each species will travel great distances to seek out their female counterparts in the female’s home-range territory. When male skunks finally discover the female’s burrow, the male will court the females with rough biting around the neck and aggressive assertion. Many females, less than impressed, will typically let out their notorious gland spray, which is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals. Females will also let out small amounts of the foul odor to alert to traveling males that a den site is present. Its typically at this time that an unsuspecting homeowner is made fully aware of the skunk brothel taking place in their yard or basement crawlspace. Skunks are not monogamous, meaning one male may court several females at a time - intensifying the odor in communal den site situations.
Off with their heads!
Around the same time the skunk calls roll in, traveling male mink have the same mindset with finding a female love connection. Typically the calls start off with a pen full of headless chickens being discovered by an otherwise unsuspecting poultry owner. Before you go accusing the local satanists of mischievous animal sacrifices, contact your local trapper - as odds are good you’ve got a mink who’s “weaseled” its way into the pen. Mink depredation on livestock such as chickens, geese, ducks and other fowl tend to be identified by complete removal of the head and neck - with the body of the carcass left completely untouched. Established mink depredation will also involve the pristine carcass being dragged into a hole in a fence or other hidden area for future consumption. Mink will commonly kill more than they can consume at one feeding, and leave “stash points” and food cache in snowbanks and in root systems.
For the experienced mink trapper, a survey “of the crime scene” during February and March typically includes the distinct aroma of the mink’s characteristic gland odor, which the mink will secrete to leave a pungent calling card. All of New England’s mustelids (members of the weasel family) have anal glands and the accompanying musk odor - but in this wildlife control agent’s opinion, none are as pungent as the mink.
Although regarded as synonymous with rivers and lakes, mink can be found some distance away from the nearest water source - especially during breeding season when the animals will travel greater distances.
The signs of the breeding season craze can be seen on roadways throughout February and March - with an influx in road-killed mink remains being observed commonly around bridges and culverts.
Love is In The Air
Skunks and mink aren’t the only furbearers getting their groove on in March. Other mustelids such as river otter (Lontra canadensis) and the fisher (Martes pennanti), as well as rodents like beavers and muskrats are getting the “primal urge” to procreate this time of year. Raccoons (Procyon lotor), as well as coyotes (canis latrans var) and red fox (vulpes vulpes) are at the tail end of their breeding season in March.
Opossums however, seem to just “get it on” whenever they darn-well please - with their breeding seasons beginning as early as December and continuing through the following October.
So remeber folks, an influx in activity this time a year from New England’s most common furbearer species doesn’t mean you’re being overrun with a hostile wild critter takeover - its just that the critters are preoccupied, and more motivated, to wander into your part of town.
There’s more than love in the air this March!