You may have noticed an increase in the number of skunks, opossums and raccoons seen around the neighborhood in the last few years. You would think that as the neighborhood becomes more populated with people, wildlife would be crowded out. However, the exact opposite has occurred. Skunks, opossums and raccoons have all adapted very well to the presence of humans, mainly because humans have unwittingly provided an unlimited food supply for them.
The most widely distributed skunk in the United States is the striped skunk, and that is the species we have in Maspeth, Middle Village and throughout the entire city. We not only have large cemeteries in which they live peacefully, but are also crisscrossed by railroad rights-of-way, where they are able to reside undisturbed.
Skunks have been known to roam for a few hundred acres looking for food. They do not look to bother people or pets, and during rare confrontations, tend to be reactive, not proactive. Skunks are best known for their ability to spray enemies with a strong odoriferous liquid, but will not do so unless they are startled and feel threatened. Then they will stand their ground rather than run away. Otherwise they are non-aggressive. They seem elusive and mysterious because they are rarely seen during daylight hours and therefore are more likely to be smelled than seen.
Benefit to Humans
Skunks are mainly insectivores, and devour many of the insects that we consider pests. Therefore, they are beneficial to humans. In addition, they eat wild fruit, like berries and crabapples. When food becomes scarce in the wintertime, they’ll hunt mice, and in the spring, they may steal the eggs of ground-nesting birds.
On occasion, skunks will come out during the day. Only if an adult skunk is seen during daytime hours and is displaying aberrant behaviors should you call 311. Examples of these behaviors include inability to move, displaying aggressiveness, walking around in circles, or harming itself.
Concerned about Skunks?
If the presence of skunks is of concern, you can discourage them from hanging around. Most importantly, do not leave pet food outside at night, and remove garbage that is not sealed in a trash can. We have more people living here now than ever; they produce trash that is attractive to skunks, which, in turn, causes the skunk population to thrive. Skunks are repelled by the smell of mothballs. You may want to spread some around your yard if the skunks are invading.
It is a lot harder to get sprayed by a skunk than many believe. However, if you or your pet has the misfortune of getting spritzed, here are some tips for removing the odor–
Pets: Use liberal amounts of vinegar and/or tomato juice. This will reduce the pungency, but only time will eliminate it completely.
Clothing: Mix 1 qt 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4c baking soda and 1 tsp laundry or dishwashing soap.
Outdoor objects: Use chlorine bleach or ammonia.
People: Carbolic soap (such as Lifebuoy) and water may be used on skin. Cold water flushes are recommended if a skunk sprays you in the eyes.
Raccoons, like skunks, are also active mainly at night. It is a myth that a raccoon seen during the day has rabies. During spring and summer months, females regularly are out during the day looking for food to bring back to their young. Please do not call 311 if you see a raccoon during the day, unless it is displaying odd, vicious behavior.
Favorite foods for raccoons include wild fruit and nuts. They have also been known to raid vegetable gardens and trash and occasionally attack small birds or mammals.
The largest threats to urban raccoons are cars and dogs. As there have been raccoons in NYC that have tested positive for rabies in recent years, it’s recommended that you make sure your pets are up-to-date on rabies shots. It’s also the law. And you also might want to keep them indoors at night.
The raccoon is another animal that has adapted well to living alongside humans. Sometimes, raccoons will invade attics or chimneys. The recommended way to make them leave is to play loud music and shine bright lights where they take up residence. If that fails, call a professional wildlife trapper.
Again, the raccoon population around these parts has exploded because people are leaving food outside which is attractive to them. Make it a point to bring in pet food at night and store trash in animal proof containers. Another option is to use Mint-X trash bags, which discourage and repel raccoons.
Here are some interesting facts about raccoons:
They are considered to be distant relatives of the bear, and even walk similar to the way bears walk.
They have 44 razor sharp teeth. They frequently get into fights with outdoor cats over food.
They generally produce one litter per year, birthing an average of five kits (baby raccoons).
The average lifespan of wild raccoons is about ten years.
In our area, they make their homes (dens) in tree cavities and old squirrel nests. If they have built up their fat reserves, they may survive for a long time without eating.
The opossum is the only marsupial in all of North America. Opossums have low internal body temperatures which make them more resistant to diseases. There have been a few documented cases of rabid opossums, but these are exceedingly rare.
It is a myth that opossums hang by their tails when sleeping. They are too heavy to do that. Opossums use their tails to help them climb.
After the joeys (baby opossums) are born, instinct tells them to crawl toward the safety of their mother’s pouch where they nurse. When they reach a certain age, the mother will carry them on her back while she searches for food. As adults, they become loners, which is why they generally are only seen one at a time.
The loudest noise an opossum will make is a hiss as an attempt to scare off predators. They otherwise are silent. The only natural defense that an opossum has is to play dead. Most predators will not eat dead animals, so this usually works in the opossum’s favor. The move has become known as “playing possum”.
The word “opossum” is derived from the Algonquin “apasum” which translates into “white animal.” The first use of the English word was made in 1608 in the notes of Captain John Smith, the founder of Jamestown, Virginia.
Opossums are omnivorous creatures that will hunt insects, garden snails and rodents and will also avail themselves of dog and cat food and – surprise – trash! With more trash producers moving into our area all the time, it’s pretty apparent why opossums are being seen more often. The Mint-X brand trash bags have also been known to repel opossums.