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The Hunger Moon 

Bill Meredith

The fox knows many things; The hedgehog knows one big thing.

....Aristotle, or someone like that

February 2 came on schedule this year, and the local news media pushed aside their headline stories about earthquakes, senate debates, and the faltering economy to inform us that Punxutawney Phil had come out of his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob to see his shadow and go back to bed for another six weeks. Groundhogs have never been known for either ambition or intellect—as Pogo once said, "They’s jes’ lazy rascals"—but Phil knew what he was doing. February is no time to be running around outdoors if you can avoid it.

For anyone who has to be out in the environment, it is February, not April, that is the cruelest month. To some Indian tribes and to our colonial forefathers in New England, the full moon in February was known as the Hunger Moon; it indicated the time of greatest hardship. Winter was still in full swing, food stored the previous fall was either getting wormy or running out entirely, and hunting and fishing were harder and less productive. If you made it through the Hunger Moon in those days, things soon started looking better; spring wasn’t too far off, and your chances of survival for another year improved. Like the proverbial hedgehog, groundhogs know this one big thing: stay indoors until the Hunger Moon is past, and then some.

It may seem odd to be using groundhogs as a standard of good sense, but not all animals are that smart. Skunks in particular come to mind— or to nose, if you want to be literal. I smelled my first skunk of the year on Jan. 31, which is about average for the time when they re-enter the landscape. They go underground in late fall in a hollow log or, preferably, an abandoned groundhog burrow if they can find one; they plug the entrance with grass, leaves and dirt, and go into a deep sleep. 

The females seem to have the good sense to sleep late, but males begin to stir around the first of February. It doesn’t make much sense in terms of human logic; there is little to eat then except garbage and carrion, the weather is miserable, predators are hungry, and prospects for finding their heart’s desire are slim. But where love is concerned, human logic means little even to people, and absolutely nothing to skunks. Their biological clocks have been running, and hormones have started to flow; so they leave the warm bedroom for the cold, cruel world outside under the Hunger Moon. 

Male skunks don’t wake up in a very good mood even under the best of circumstances, and now they’re cold and hungry as well as oversexed; and to make it all worse, the only skunk they’re likely to run into is another male in the same frame of mind. So they let off steam— loaded with butyl mercaptan— at the least provocation. This probably doesn’t affect the outcome of battles between males; it discourages some predators, although one of their main enemies, the great horned owl, doesn’t seem to mind it. And it doesn’t deter automobiles at all; for the next several weeks, skunks will be among the commonest of road kills.

As a child I was taught skunks were to be counted among the enemy. My mother was sure all of them were rabid. Grandma, with not much more factual evidence on her side, believed their sole mission in life was to kill her chickens. Several times each year our dog would come in reeking, eyes watering, sick at his stomach, and wearing a look that said, "Yeah, I should know better by now." My Uncle Fay, who lived just up the road from us, was in some ways worse than the dog; he waged a skunk vendetta for years. 

He was an inventive man and liked to do things with style; he usually won, but the victories were pyrrhic, or at least smelly. One spring a possum began hanging around his yard just when the baby chicks were starting to wander about. He didn’t want to shoot it so close to the house, with kids and livestock hanging around; so he built an elaborate deadfall consisting of a large rock propped up by a small stick, to which he tied some meat as bait. That night a skunk found it before the possum did, and the next day he had the task of removing a hundred-pound rock from a carcass that was about half an inch thick and a lot wider than it used to be, and steeped in a most un-possum like redolence. Another time, he found a skunk hiding under Grandma’s chicken house and ran for his gun; he killed it, but not before it fired back, and no one could stand to collect the eggs for a week.

In my dotage now, I rather like skunks—at an appropriate distance, of course. I find them interesting for several reasons. We used to call them "polecats," a name that was brought across the Atlantic by our colonial ancestors; it is correctly applied to an equally smelly relative, the European weasel. They belong to the weasel family, which zoologists call Mustelidae. As the name suggests, all weasels have scent glands; skunks have simply perfected them to a greater degree than the rest of the family. 

Weasels as a group are, pound-for-pound, the most ferocious carnivores on the planet; fortunately, most of them are small, but the big ones, like the wolverine, are so vicious that they are left alone even by wolves and bears. Skunks, by comparison, are peace-loving fellows; for survival, they have traded the family’s usual physical violence for a chemical defense. This enables them to waddle placidly through life rather than tearing about like Tex Avery’s Tasmanian Devil. They have evolved a color pattern, the white stripe, which makes them readily visible; and throughout their history, when meeting a larger animal, their reaction has been to raise their tail and wave it to attract attention. Most of their enemies are sufficiently warned, after one meeting, to leave them alone. Unfortunately, automobiles never seem to learn this lesson.

There are occasional cases of rabies, but most skunks are free from it, and most people don’t get close enough to them to have to worry about it. Grandma’s beliefs to the contrary, documented cases of chickencide are rare; if they find a dead chicken they will gnaw on it, and they might kill young chicks if the opportunity arose. But their preferred diet consists of insects, berries, and mice. They will eat the young of ground-nesting birds if they happen to stumble upon them, but they do far less damage to bird populations than house cats. Mostly they prefer to go about their own business, a trait to be admired in a world so complicated as this.

The Hunger Moon waxed full on Feb. 6 this year, and there was still snow on the ground from before Christmas; but as it waned into the third quarter a week later, the temperature reached 60 for the first time this year and I saw a flock of about 40 robins in the field next to mine. So if you see a skunk, wish him well and tell him to take heart; if he can avoid owls and cars just a little longer, spring will come and the females will awaken. Where there’s love, there is hope for yet another year.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith