By John L. Turner
Although the hike was twenty-four years ago, I remember the experience as if it had happened last week.
I was heading west along an old asphalt road, broken up by time and weather and flanked on both sides by an interwoven fabric of dwarf pines and scrub oaks, vegetation typical to the globally rare Dwarf Pine Plains of Westhampton. Ahead and to my left I suddenly noticed several birds making a commotion. A pair of brown thrashers and a rufous-sided towhee were flitting up and down around a large clump of scrub oak, a clear signal that something had them agitated. My interest piqued, I went to investigate.
Coming around a rounded clump of scrub oak I saw the target of their concern — a striped skunk ten to twelve feet away, actively feeding on what I believe was a hatch of flying termites which formed a gauzy cloud above the skunk. (Several years earlier an intense wildfire roared through this area killing even the fire resistant scrub oaks — I surmised the termites were feeding on the decaying wood of the large, somewhat exposed rootstocks.)
So excited was I by this first live sighting of a skunk on Long Island that I lost my common sense and got closer than I should have, trying to get a better idea of what it was eating. That I crossed the line became immediately clear when the skunk turned its back to me and stomped the ground with its front feet — a telltale sign a skunk is agitated and will likely spray. Obviously not wishing for this odoriferous outcome, I quickly (and comically) turned around and ran thirty or more feet, leaping over and around blueberry and huckleberry bushes and fallen logs to gain a safe distance, desperately hoping to avoid getting sprayed as I dashed away. My hope became reality as the skunk didn’t spray.
Several years later, this time in the southeast sector of the Dwarf Pine Plains, I had my second sighting of a skunk. It was early evening and I was with a friend birding a bit before nightfall at which time we were going to listen for whip-poor-wills. We headed east on a wide sandy trail when a striped skunk suddenly broke out of the dwarf pines and started to waddle toward us. It came within 25-30 feet of us before nonchalantly breaking back into the thicket.
The most recent (and shortest) sighting of a skunk occurred in October of 2021. Driving west on Sound Avenue around dusk an animal ambled across the road about a mile west of Briermere Farms (famous for its pies). This sighting led me to think about the first several experiences I had with striped skunks on Long Island — individuals that unlike the experience above, unfortunately all involved roadkills and all in the Pine Barrens — along County Routes 111 in Manorville, 51 in western Southampton, and 94 (Nugent Drive) in Calverton.
All of the sightings were exciting to me as they indicated that this distinctive mammal was still part of Long Island’s fauna and that it hadn’t disappeared. For several decades before naturalists weren’t sure of its status here as there were few if any reports of skunk sightings. Some feared it had been extirpated from Long Island.
The striped skunk is a striking and beautiful animal, reminiscent of a negative photo image involving the stark contrast of black and white. It has a black face with a white line running down the nose between the eyes. The top of the head is white as if wearing a cap of cotton or snow with the white continuing down the back in two slightly separated racing stripes which sandwich a black back and rump. The bottom of the animal including its legs and feet is black. The rather fluffy tail is a mixture of black and white hairs. All in all, it is a most distinctive mammal!
Three other skunk species occur in the United States — the spotted skunk, hog-nosed skunk, and hooded skunk. These are primarily western species. Skunks were long grouped with the “mustelid” mammals, animals such as otters, badgers and weasels; they have since been broken out of this group and are now in their own mammalian family.
Paul F. Connor, in his definitive 1971 New York State Museum publication “The Mammals of Long Island, New York,” had much to say about the species. He notes the skunk was once common on Long Island but became much less so in the twentieth century. He ascribes two reasons for its decline. One is as roadkill victims in the ever increasing network of roads constructed on Long Island over the years (the home range of male skunks involves many hundreds of acres over which they wander in their search for food and mates) ensuring in most places here they will intersect a road. The second reason for decline was due to poisoning from the widespread use on eastern Long Island of Paris Green, an arsenic based pesticide used to control the Colorado Potato beetle which skunks apparently ate with devastating results. (Skunks readily eat insects — remember the episode above where I almost got sprayed?).
During Connor’s survey he found only one skunk — in 1961, a road-killed animal near Sag Harbor, although he did find ample signs of skunk in the form of droppings, tracks, its tell-tale odor, even finding a den — in the pine barrens of Manorville. Connor notes several reports by other observers who saw skunks in the early 1960s in Montauk, Calverton, Napeague (Hither Hills State Park), and Yaphank, even as far west as the North Hills region of northwestern Nassau County.
Connor mentions Daniel Denton’s earlier account (1670) of striped skunks on Long Island, stating they were once common and, surprisingly, were widely eaten by Indigenous people. The famous naturalist Roy Latham backs this up by stating, in personal communication, to Connor: “the skunk was one of the more common mammals discovered in his Indian archeological excavations on eastern Long Island, found at most sites.”
Remarkably, beaver and wolves, species long ago eradicated from Long Island, were also found at these sites. Latham also reported to Connor observing a pair of albino skunks in Montauk, in June of 1928.
It is clear the striped skunk is hanging on here and, in fact, appears to be slowly rebounding. According to a Dec. 12, 2022, Newsday article written by Joan Gralla, recent skunk sightings have occurred in Smithtown, Commack, and Northport and a colleague, Dave Taft, recently mentioned to me in a phone conversation of a road-kill skunk he saw on the shoulder of the Cross Island Expressway in Queens. Tim Green, a manager in the Environmental Protection Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory, reports that skunks are “fairly common but low numbers” at the property and recently saw a road-killed skunk on Middle Country Road in Calverton.
The acquisition of so much parkland, and thus wildlife habitat, throughout Long Island — especially the preservation of tens of thousands of contiguous acres of Pine Barrens throughout central Suffolk County — gives reason for optimism that Pepe Le Pew will long remain a distinctive and unique component of Long Island’s fauna.
The Seatuck Environmental Association is interested in better understanding the presence and distribution of striped skunk and other mammals native to Long Island. To this end, Seatuck has launched a 2022 version of Paul Connor’s seminal 1971 report through its Long Island Mammal Survey and you can contribute to it as a “Citizen Scientist.” This initiative will involve the use of trail cams to detect mammals and experts will utilize live traps to confirm the presence of small mammal species like flying squirrels, shrews, moles, and mice. If you wish to contribute sightings you can do this through the iNaturalist website.
An informative program entitled “Terrestrial Mammals of Long Island,” given by Mike Bottini as part of Seatuck’s Community Science Webinar series, is available at https://seatuck.org/community-science-webinars/. Mike is a wildlife biologist at Seatuck who you may know through his important work in tracking the recovery of river otters on Long Island (a future “Nature Matters” column!)
I hope you see a skunk during one of your hikes or journeys in the wilds of Long Island. If you do, just remember, unlike me, to keep your distance!
A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.