Skunks and the food web



Among the many wild mammals living on Mount Desert Island is the well known and most misunderstood skunk. Their only defense against an enemy is to use their powerful scent glands. Skunks can’t run very fast, and they are not good fighters. Spraying the well known scent from glands near the tail is their only defense. When a skunk is not annoyed there is no smell at all. Dogs and cats annoying them will prompt them to spray.

Skunks spend their time foraging for food wherever they live, be it in a small town or out in the country. Always retreat if you meet one or let it pass by quietly. I came out of the town office building one night and almost tripped on one going to my car. It was about 10:30 p.m. and just the right time for them to be out looking for food. There are so many places for them to find food in Bar Harbor it probably seems like a great place to live for them. Just be a good neighbor, speak softly, keep your dog under control and move slowly.

If skunks should take up residence under your house or garage try to learn to live with them as peaceful neighbors and you’ll have no problem. If it seems to be an impossible situation, get one of the local animal control people here on MDI to find them a new home in a safe place.

They are native mammals and we all should treat them respectfully. It’s their island too. Talk softly, move slowly, and keep your dog quiet. Be a good neighbor.

Skunks play a bit role in one of many chains of life in the natural world. Strangely enough, skunks greatly affect the duck population here on MDI.

It works this way: each year female snapping turtles lay 50 eggs at a time in the spring. The adult females deposit the eggs in holes they have dug, then cover them up with sand or dirt, moisten them and leaves. Their motherhood duties are then done.

If all the snapping turtle nests on this island produced healthy snapping turtles each year and they moved into island ponds we would have too many snapping turtles. Once a snapping turtle is big it can’t be killed by many creatures, except men and cars. The snapping turtles, like reptile submarines, would eat the baby ducks as the small birds swam around the lakes and ponds. They would not have a chance for survival. Small birds along the shore and ducks would also be eaten.

Skunks control the population of snapping turtles on this island by digging up the eggs for a tasty treat. Foxes and raccoons also eat some of the eggs but skunks are the main predators doing so and they deserve lots of credit for doing this and keeping nature in balance.

Ring-billed gulls always make me laugh. They are so comfortable and right at home with humans and their cars moving by them. They seem right at home in the mall parking lots in Ellsworth and also at the Thompson Island Picnic area and down by the Waterfront in Ellsworth.

These gulls are quite beautiful in a quiet way. They are a little larger than a crow but they act like herring gulls and have a dark ring around their bills rather than a red spot. Since they tend to be very tame, if you see one you will most likely be able to get very close to it and get a good look at its yellow feet.

Ring-billed gulls are great insect eaters with a particular love for grasshoppers stirred up in a plowed field. In flight, they can seize a grasshopper as easily as a swallow in hot pursuit of smaller insects. If one of these gulls sees something edible in the water it floats down slowly or plunges downward and grabs the food without wetting its plumage.

These birds are very gregarious and usually seen in large flocks of its own or with other species. Thompson Island is a great place to watch them. These gulls nest fifteen miles east of MDI on Petit Manan Island, a part of the National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern Maine coast. They do not nest on MDI or in the park.

While writing my latest book “Living on the Edge,” and giving talks at local libraries about it I was happy to find a sea urchin on the beach one day. Sea urchins are strange little creatures much sought after by our resident eider ducks for food. And the ducks swallow them whole! This is no small feat to accomplish for the urchin is very prickly, like a pin cushion!

Once down the throat of the eider the bird’s gizzard grinds it up for consumption. The sea urchin provides good food for some birds, some mammals and some people.

The sea urchin’s eating technique is quite a procedure. These creatures have a mouth structure that has been nicknamed Aristotle’s lantern. At the center of this “lantern” are five teeth that come together like a bird’s beak. With these strong teeth the urchin scrapes algae off the rocks. As the teeth wear down, they continue to grow.

High surf, wind and rain bring sea birds close to the shore. Lend them a helping hand, for some have trouble walking on land and some are unable to take off from land. Give them a chance to survive by putting them back in the water.

Send any questions, photos or observations to teahousetrio@wildblue.net or call 244-3742.

 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to teahousetrio@wildblue.net or call 244-3742.

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