Nature: What’s black and white and cute all over?

The author, Ruth Grierson, with a skunk named Oreo.

The last day of 2020 has arrived. It has not been a banner year for humans, but the wildlife world moves on right on schedule, and that is hopeful to me.

I have always had a fondness for skunks. Early in my life as the wife of a naturalist, I had skunks living in the house with us and our dogs. They were females that had lost their mothers in traffic accidents and I cared for them. The adult dogs were well behaved and accepted them with no problem. They even curled up together to sleep in a favorite spot. The only time I expected trouble was the time the skunk pulled down the Christmas tree while it reached for a dog biscuit hanging on a lower limb (big mistake for me to make). The skunk ran off quickly and hid.

Just recently I needed help in recovering from a fall and I stayed a few weeks with my daughter at Kisma Preserve in Trenton. She has there a very large male skunk that a kind woman rescued from the highway one day several months ago. The skunk’s mother was dead on the road and the tiny, scared young skunk, maybe 2 months old and easily held on the palm of your hand, was hovering around helpless at the spot. A good Samaritan stopped, scooped up the baby skunk and brought it to get care at the preserve. The woman who rescued the skunk was on her way for a cancer treatment at the clinic and didn’t mind possibly getting sprayed. The baby skunk was grateful to be rescued and thrived and is now a large, beautiful, furry male that plays with a small dog and likes to be stroked and held. For visitors to the preserve, he is a favorite.

Skunks can’t run very fast and they are not fighters so the only way they have to defend themselves is to use the unpleasant spray they are able to eject from their anal glands. Skunks themselves do not smell bad at all, but those who annoy them will!  Skunks do not hibernate in the winter, but they sleep more deeply and try to avoid very bad storms and unpleasant very cold weather. They’ll start becoming active in late February. Just keep your garbage out of their reach and control your dog when they are around. They’re good neighbors. Just be polite and calm when you meet!

Feeders are active now with winter birds and evening grosbeaks are being seen in large numbers. They wander about so that in some years we hardly see any here. This year they’re very visible at feeders all over the island and outer islands.

Pine siskins are irregular residents in Maine and pretty much seen in every month of the year here. Flocks are very active and will land in a tree, spring up, swirl up and about and then return to the same place. In the winter, they hunt for food and may find themselves in the company of goldfinches at a feeding station where millet seeds and cracked butternut are favorite foods. Their call has been described as similar to that of the sound made escaping from a radiator.

Regardless of the weather, nothing dampens the spirit of the beautiful tree sparrows. This sparrow is easy to recognize since it sports a reddish-brown cap and a single round, black breast spot. During January, tree sparrows are seen foraging for weed seeds or those fallen in the snow, and they occasionally visit feeders.

Snowy owls are being seen in many places, especially near wide open fields, near the airport, golf courses, along the shore and on the local mountain tops. Unlike most other owls, snowy owls hunt during the day. This gives you a good chance to see them if you’re paying attention to the world around you. In a snowy landscape, they are not always easy to recognize. Be on the alert.

The snow may look undisturbed as you walk along, but underneath the surface is a network of tunnels made by voles and mice. Voles differ from mice in that they have small ears and eyes, blunt profiles and short, hairy tails. Even though they are active both day and night, they move most often in tunnels, so their tracks are not seen. They will sometimes dig ventilation holes to the surface from their underground worlds. They are important food for wildlife and they are very prolific breeders They can produce 17 litters per year, with perhaps 9 in each litter!

Great horned owls may hoot this month. Murres and razor-billed auks are seen off local islands. December storms leave interesting objects on the beach. Let me know what you find on your walks!

Send any questions or observations to [email protected].

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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