The Skunk





In February a new track appears upon the snow, slender and delicate,

about a third larger than that of the gray squirrel, indicating no haste

or speed, but, on the contrary, denoting the most imperturbable ease and

leisure, the footprints so close together that the trail appears like a

chain of curiously carved links. Sir _Mephitis mephitica_, or, in plain

English, the skunk, has waked up from his six weeks' nap, and come out

into society again. He is a nocturnal traveler, very bold and impudent,

coming quite up to the barn and outbuildings, and sometimes taking up

his quarters for the season under the haymow. There is no such word as

hurry in his dictionary, as you may see by his path upon the snow. He

has a very sneaking, insinuating way, and goes creeping about the fields

and woods, never once in a perceptible degree altering his gait, and, if

a fence crosses his course, steers for a break or opening to avoid

climbing. He is too indolent even to dig his own hole, but appropriates

that of a woodchuck, or hunts out a crevice in the rocks, from which he

extends his rambling in all directions, preferring damp, thawy weather.

He has very little discretion or cunning, and holds a trap in utter

contempt, stepping into it as soon as beside it, relying implicitly for

defense against all forms of danger upon the unsavory punishment he is

capable of inflicting. He is quite indifferent to both man and beast,

and will not hurry himself to get out of the way of either. Walking

through the summer fields at twilight, I have come near stepping upon

him, and was much the more disturbed of the two.



He has a secret to keep and knows it, and is careful not to betray

himself until he can do so with the most telling effect. I have known

him to preserve his serenity even when caught in a steel trap, and look

the very picture of injured innocence, manoeuvring carefully and

deliberately to extricate his foot from the grasp of the naughty jaws.

Do not by any means take pity on him, and lend a helping hand!



How pretty his face and head! How fine and delicate his teeth, like a

weasel's or a cat's! When about a third grown, he looks so well that one

covets him for a pet. My neighbor once captured a young one, which he

kept over a year, and which afforded him much amusement. He named it

Mahomet.



No animal is more cleanly in its habits than he. He is not an awkward

boy who cuts his own face with his whip; and neither his flesh nor his

fur hints the weapon with which he is armed. The most silent creature

known to me, he makes no sound, so far as I have observed, save a

diffuse, impatient noise, like that produced by beating your hand with a

whisk-broom, when the farm-dog has discovered his retreat in the stone

fence. He renders himself obnoxious to the farmer by his partiality for

hens' eggs and young poultry. He is a confirmed epicure, and at

plundering hen-roosts an expert. Not the full-grown fowls are his

victims, but the youngest and most tender. At night Mother Hen receives

under her maternal wings a dozen newly hatched chickens, and with much

pride and satisfaction feels them all safely tucked away in her

feathers. In the morning she is walking about disconsolately, attended

by only two or three of all that pretty brood. What has happened? Where

are they gone? That pickpocket, Sir Mephitis, could solve the mystery.

Quietly has he approached, under cover of darkness, and one by one

relieved her of her precious charge. Look closely, and you will see

their little yellow legs and beaks, or part of a mangled form, lying

about on the ground. Or, before the hen has hatched, he may find her

out, and, by the same sleight of hand, remove every egg, leaving only

the empty blood-stained shells to witness against him. The birds,

especially the ground-builders, suffer in like manner from his

plundering propensities.



The secretion upon which he relies for defense, and which is the chief

source of his unpopularity, while it affords good reasons against

cultivating him as a pet, and mars his attractiveness as game, is by no

means the greatest indignity that can be offered to a nose. It is a

rank, living smell, and has none of the sickening qualities of disease

or putrefaction. Indeed, I think a good smeller will enjoy its most

refined intensity. It approaches the sublime, and makes the nose tingle.

It is tonic and bracing, and, I can readily believe, has rare medicinal

qualities. I do not recommend its use as eye-water, though an old farmer

assures me it has undoubted virtues when thus applied. Hearing, one

night, a disturbance among his hens, he rushed suddenly out to catch the

thief, when Sir Mephitis, taken by surprise, and no doubt much annoyed

at being interrupted, discharged the vials of his wrath full in the

farmer's face, and with such admirable effect that, for a few moments,

he was completely blinded, and powerless to revenge himself upon the

rogue, who embraced the opportunity to make good his escape; but he

declared that afterwards his eyes felt as if purged by fire, and his

sight was much clearer.



The skunk has perfect confidence in the efficacy of his weapon. Late one

March afternoon in my walk, I saw one coming down through a field toward

the highway. I thought I would intercept him and turn him back. I

advanced to within fifteen or twenty yards of him, and, as he did not

check his course, judged it prudent to check mine. On he came toward me,

with the most jaunty and frolicsome air, waving his tail high above his

head and challenging me to the combat. I retreated and he pursued, till

I finally left him master of the field.





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