Monday, February 16, 2009

Who Bugged the Skunk? Plus the Dollar General Red-tailed Hawk Returns

A Skunk in grass courtesy of

Why is the lead photograph a Skunk instead of a bird? Blog contributor Karen Anne Kolling has a Skunk mystery she's attempting to crack. Here is her email---

What just happened here...

Sometime in the last few nights, I was pretty sure I saw a skunk or two out on the deck at the feeder area. I can't really see what's going on at night, since I leave the deck light off, but I was pretty sure we're talking skunks not one of the raccoons. (My mania has not yet extended to forking out for night vision goggles.)

So, as is my habit, this morning about 5am I turn on the light and go out on the deck to refill the feeders, first taking a look to be sure I'm not about to disturb anybody at the feeders. (5 am because I'm a night owl, and the birds show up at first light.)

Outside, there's a strong smell of skunk in the air, which there hadn't been after my perhaps skunk sighting a few days ago. But no one seemed to be around, so I started filling the feeders. Then I heard a whump whump sound, kind of like what I'd expect giant wings to make(do they...), and some high pitched squeaking. It went on for, I guess, ten seconds or longer. I peered, but couldn't see anything. Then it stopped, and I realized the house was getting filled with a stiff breeze of eau de skunk, so I went inside.

Was a nocturnal bird of prey carrying off one of my skunks? If so, I guess this wouldn't be the (non-redtail) hawk from a few houses down, although come to think of it, wasn't there a discussion of their catching prey at night? To add to the macabre aspect, my neighbor told me a year or so ago that the strong skunk smell in our yards was because a hawk had caught a skunk and pounded the poor guy into the ground or something.

I'm not sure how a hawk would manage to do that.

A skunk must be pretty big for a hawk (or owl?)

Now I am hoping that this skunk smell in the house dissipates...


In the literature the only predator accepted to take Skunks is the Great Horned Owl.

That said one should never underestimate a Red-tail as we all know. Let's look at that possibility first.

Yes, Red-tails have been caught hunting at night. They take bats and other nocturnal creatures. So darkness doesn't put a Red-tail out of the running as Skunk nabber.

I would be interested as to whether the "whump, whump" sound could conceivably have been a bird lifting the skunk and pounding it on the ground, up a half foot then down wham on the ground, up, down, up, down. Rather like the behavior of juvenile raptors who use this technique to kill rocks and sticks, but they also use it on live prey that they have grabbed but failed to kill with their talons on the hit.

If the whump whump sounds were from wings than our skunk grabber is less likely to have been the Great Horned Owl as owl wings are nigh on completely silent.

What about size? A small adult Striped Skunk, runs about 1 pound, 1 ounce. A Red-tail can carry somewhat less than half her own weight. The average weight of a Red-tail, though varying depending on the resource, is usually cited to be slightly less than 2 pounds and the very largest female is said to go up to 3.5 pounds. Therefore if there was a small skunk and a big Red-tail the RT would at least be able to lift the skunk to either take off with it or to batter it against the ground.

The squeaking could certainly mean that the Skunk had been grabbed but wasn't killed by the initial grip of the talons. The raptor can't get a new and more lethal grip without letting go, so they usually first try squeezing harder and if that doesn't work with struggling prey, an RT would be hard pressed to wrestle with a Skunk, so the pounding on the ground technique could well come into play at that point.

There are authors who categorically say that that the Great Horned Owl is the only species to take skunks.

Which may be true but on the other hand the clever consummately adaptable Red-tail is constantly doing things that we're able to watch in the urban setting that no one was aware they did before, until we see it. That of course doesn't mean the activity makes it into any of the literature. It is considered anecdotal. Many of us saw Pale Male taking a headless, one winged, very large gull to the nest one day. He had to fly the height in stages but he made it. He's not really supposed to be able to do that weight wise and supposedly he has no business nabbing large Gulls either.

But as Great Horned Owls are known to take Skunks...

Great Horned Owl photograph courtesy of

Yeah, what about the usual suspect in this sort of case, the GHO? Gulp, just look at size and strength on those feet!

In the Wikipedia listing for the Great Horned Owl, it says, " These birds have 500 pounds per square inch of crushing power in their talons. An average adult human male has about 60 pounds per square inch in his hands."

The average weight of a GHO is 3 pounds 1 ounce. That's in the range of a large female RT. On the other hand, the largest GHO would be a number of pounds above that figure and make the kill even easier.

That sounds like the Owl could kill a skunk on the hit, no problem. Well, Skunks are not just going to stand there and let themselves get grabbed if they can help it. If the hit was a little off or the Skunk got wind of the predator, there may well have been a struggle. Nothing says that a GHO might not have had to use the bam bam on the ground technique if pressed, herself.

So Karen what do YOU think that whump, whump sound was? Seems like that may be the telling detail. If it were wings at least.

So how is the Skunk odor dissipation going ?

Remember the Dollar General Red-tail? I'd been looking for him in this tree he'd loved to perch in for months but hadn't seen him for some time.
Well today when I went into Dollar General to get detergent, one of the clerks who has now become a hawkwatcher, came over and reported for several days now about mid-afternoon, she's seen him flying over the building, across the highway, and going to do something in the area beyond the houses facing the road which was excellent news.
Well, it was mid-afternoon. I bought my detergent, and walked out the front entrance and there above my head was our little buddy RT heading across the highway and flying beyond the houses.
I love a bird with a schedule.
Donegal Browne


Karen Anne said...

Thanks a lot for the info. I have no idea what was going on :-)

The hawk who hangs out a few houses away is not a redtail. I've only seen him (or her) 2-3 times in the past couple of years, but the chest feathers are different, I don't remember how. Not to say that there isn't a redtailed hawk around, that would be great. I have never seen one in real life.

He's sat on my deck railing about once a year, just long enough for me to try to get a photo and not be fast enough to do it. Next time I will have to concentrate on what he looks like instead.

Donegal Browne said...


Much more Skunk information along with an email from rehabber Bobby Horvath with his take on the mystery moment in the next post UP.