Western Roadkill Observation System. List your observations. : May 2018

Friday, May 11, 2018

Springtime Skunks: Amorous, Odoriferous and in the Road

Springtime Skunks: Amorous, Odoriferous and in the Road
March 28, 2016
host at  Northern Woodlands

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
Driving home from work the other day, I saw my first road-killed skunk of the year. And if this year is anything like the last few, it won’t be the last one I see this season. While April showers do indeed bring May flowers, it’s also true that warm weather in March and early April is a certain sign that skunks will turn up dead in the road in great numbers.
I’ve been paying close attention to roadkill lately, and while most of the abundant species like raccoons and squirrels seem to be struck and killed by vehicles regularly throughout the year, with maybe an uptick in fall when the young of the year disperse and food sources get concentrated, that doesn’t seem to be the case with skunks to the same degree. These attractive-but-unpopular animals seem to meet their end on roadways most often in early spring.
March is the breeding season for the region’s only native skunk, the striped skunk, whose black-and-white fur and pungent aroma make it unmistakable. The species lives in a variety of habitats, including mixed woods and brush, and it often forages in fields, lawns, and other clearings. An omnivore, it feeds on a wide variety of insects, grubs, berries, and carrion.
Although skunks will sometimes den up together in winter, for the most part they live solitary lives. During the breeding season, they may travel great distances to seek each other out. This often requires road crossings. Because skunks are largely nocturnal and most wildlife is struck by vehicles at night, they are a common casualty. Young skunks seeking to breed for the first time may be especially vulnerable.
Despite their stink, skunks have a closer relationship with humans than most people realize.
In earlier times, skunk pelts were a valuable commodity in the fur trade. During the Depression, when they were made into hats, gloves, and coats, one skunk pelt could sell for $4 or $5. Their value hasn’t changed much since then, making the animals hardly worthwhile for trappers to bother with. There is a niche market today for their scent glands, which are used in commercial animal lures. One state biologist equated skunk essence to “a long distance call with universal appeal” among many animals, especially fishers.
The decline of skunk trapping may mean there are more skunks today than existed a century ago, but few states conduct skunk population surveys so it’s hard to verify this. One thing is certain, however – skunks undoubtedly benefited from human development of the landscape. Based on roadkill surveys and nuisance complaints, there are believed to be many more skunks per square mile of urban and suburban area than in more natural settings. But their proximity also means the animals are more apt to being struck by vehicles.
Which brings us to one more reason why skunks become roadkill so often in spring – their brazen nature. Skunks just aren’t as cautious as many other wildlife species, especially when love is in the air. Because of their ability to spray a noxious liquid from their scent glands, there are few predators that will attack them. Coyotes may occasionally prey upon them, and great horned owls are expert skunk killers, but the risk of a burning nose and eyes, even temporary blindness, keeps most other predators at bay.
And who would blame them for staying away? The scent was described by author and wildlife artist Ernest Thompson Seton as a combination of perfume musk, essence of garlic, burning sulfur, and sewer gas "magnified a thousand times."
Because striped skunks have little fear of predators, they apparently have little fear of almost anything that moves, including humans. They’re comfortable living around homes and businesses, often building dens beneath abandoned buildings, under residential porches and decks, and beneath woodpiles and stone walls. I like to wander my property at night, listening for owls and staring at the stars, and it’s not uncommon for a skunk to waddle past me during the breeding season. One nearly even stepped on my foot and kept going as if I wasn’t there.
In a similar way, when a car approaches a skunk, the animal brazenly stands its ground. Sadly, it’s a confrontation that the skunk almost never wins.
Todd McLeish is an author and natural history writer. His most recent book is entitled, Norwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018



Cyclists can now help scientists by reporting animals flattened by automobiles.
An organization that pairs data-collecting outdoor enthusiasts with researchers launched a roadkill-observation project this week. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is calling on everyone from commuters to expedition cyclists to record information about wildlife carcasses on their route and enter the data online.
“The tens of thousands of people that are outside every day can now be mobilized to do more with their time, to be citizen scientists,” said Gregg Treinish, who founded and directs the non-profit group.
So far, the most extensive roadkill-counting projects have been the California Roadkill Observation System and a similar project in MaineFraser Shilling, the University of California, Davis ecologist__ __behind these networks, will add the global data from cycling citizen scientists to his roadkill research.
“I think that cyclists and the pedestrian world have this weird connection to roadkill because of the risk we’re always facing,” said Shilling.
Before transportation planners can help prevent costly collisions, they need the kind of data that cyclists are uniquely positioned to collect.
Commuters and recreational cyclists who regularly ride the same routes are important observers because their contributions will help track change over time, Shilling said. Expedition cyclists on long trips can provide snapshots of roadkill over a large region.
Sonya Baumstein, the founder of Epoch Expeditions, an adventure and environmental education non-profit__, __inspired the call to the cycling community when she contacted Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation looking for projects. Baumstein is on her organization's first trek — a 13,000-mile rowing, biking, kayaking, hiking, education and data collection extravaganza that she plans to complete in less than 400 days, sometimes traveling solo. She and another team member are currently biking north along the West Coast, adding to the 300 athletes that Treinish has paired with about 80 scientists since 2011.
During her ride, Baumstein is helping Treinish and Shilling pilot the project to record flattened fauna. Cyclists who don't want to stop can make a voice recording on the fly noting the location of an ill-fated animal, or they can remember observations and write them on a notepad. They could stop and take a photo as well, which is the best way to help researchers confirm identifications.
Shilling has already learned a lot by asking California drivers to log dead animals into his database. So far, 708 people, including wildlife experts, have entered over 17,000 observations into the California Roadkill Observation System.
Half of California’s land-dwelling vertebrate species have appeared in the system, identified with 95 percent accuracy, said Shilling. He’s learned that installing wildlife crossings over or under roads won’t be enough to reduce roadkill, because animals are hit everywhere, and there aren't many specific hotspots.
Shilling’s take on the easiest and least expensive solution to wildlife collisions is one every traffic-weary cyclist can appreciate. Drivers should slow down.
“We take for granted our right to drive these fast-moving metal objects wherever we feel like, at whatever speeds we feel like, until we get caught for speeding,” said Shilling.
His group has developed an Android app for its California database and plans to release it in about a month. They're also looking for help creating an iPhone app. Technology development for the roadkill projects happens on volunteer time, just like the data collection.
“People are investing their time in the hope that it’s going to result in a conservation benefit,” said Shilling. “That they won’t even get recognized for it necessarily, but they are helping to make it happen, I think that’s a really big deal.”