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Delta Student Studies Skunks; It’s a Stinky Job, but…

DELTA MARSH, Manitoba—Travis Quirk would be the perfect guest for the “I’ve Got a Secret” television show. The panelists would never guess Travis secret: “I’m earning my doctorate studying skunks.”

Then again, one whiff and they might figure it out.

Quirk admits his can be a stinky job. “Let’s just say I don’t have any roommates,” he jokes. “I guess there’s a reason not many people do skunk research.”

When Travis says he’s studying skunks, he doesn’t mean reading about them in the school library or observing them through a chicken-wire enclosure.

His research is strictly hands-on.

It’s also very sophisticated.

During his four summers in the Delta Waterfowl student research program, Travis has live-trapped between 400 and 500 wild skunks from a 30-square-mile study area near the town of Minnedosa just west of here.

Using a long “jab pole”, he injects each animal with a muscle-relaxing drug. Once the animals are immobilized, they’re weighed, measured, fitted with ear tags and radio collars, and a microchip is implanted in each. He even measures their body condition using bio-electrical impedance analysis.

The information Travis gathers is important because the size and body condition of females go a long way towards determining reproductive success. “Bigger, well-conditioned females have a better chance of bringing off an early litter and larger offspring,” he says, “and survival rates for well-conditioned young are higher.”

Travis collects hair and blood samples from each animal and analyzes the stable isotopes to determine what the females have been eating. “You’ve heard the expression, ‘We are what we eat,’” he says. “Well, everything a skunk eats is absorbed into body tissues. By analyzing the stable isotopes in those tissues, we can tell what an animal has been eating.

“Scat tells you what they ate recently; the blood tells us what they ate the last couple of weeks, and the hair they grew tells us what they were eating last fall.”

The radio collars help him locate denning sites after the females have brought off their litters. Once he pinpoints a den, he grabs the aromatic youngsters by the scruff of the neck, often pulling them from between the rotting floorboards of abandoned buildings or reaching into a hole in the ground.

A microchip is implanted in each, and a chip-reading scanner placed at the entrance of the den monitors the comings and goings of the mothers and youngsters.

The knowledge Travis is gaining could provide some very practical solutions for waterfowl managers looking for ways to offset impact of nest-raiding skunks.

Across most of the prairie breeding grounds, small mammalian predators like skunks, foxes and raccoons destroy an estimated 90 percent of all upland duck nests, and a lot of songbird nests as well. As predator densities expanded in recent decades, nest success declined in lockstep.

The Minnedosa area is a good example. Once one of the most productive nesting regions in Manitoba, duck production there has been well below maintenance levels in recent years, and predators are the reason. The more scientists learn about predators, the better they’ll be able to address the problem.

A University of Saskatchewan Ph.D. candidate, Quirk’s research has been funded primarily by Delta Waterfowl, a nonprofit conservation organization that has been conducting waterfowl research since 1938. Delta’s prestigious student research program is directed by Scientific Director Dr. Frank Rohwer and Research Director Dr. Elizabeth Loos, both of Louisiana State University. Additional funding for Travis’ work was provided by the Manitoba Sustainable Development Innovation Fund.

Surprisingly, Travis says he has been sprayed only a couple of times in four years. “To be honest, wild skunks aren’t as bad as most people think,” he says. “They’re actually quite timid. The pen-raised ones are another story. They’re so tame they crawl over our feet like cats, and sometimes spray us just because they’re bored.”

Does Travis have any advice for nature-lovers who encounter a skunk? “Just stand still and they probably won’t bother you.”

Travis says years of working with skunks have dulled his olfactory sensitivity to all but the most direct encounters. When that happens, he mixes up a solution of one quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, 1⁄4 cup of baking soda and a tablespoon of liquid dish soap. That same concoction is popular with hunters who use it on their dogs.