A Visitor in Black And White
By Beth Winegarner
As I stepped out my back door into the dusk, a small skunk lifted its sleek black head from the ground, where it was sniffing out sunflower seeds cast off from the bird feeders overhead. It saw me and dashed across the yard in a streak of black and white, but paused before disappearing around the back of the shed. It doubled back, following its nose, until it found the small bright-pink watering can.
The skunk got up on its hind legs, putting its front paws on the edge of the can. It stuck its nose inside, sensing a few inches of water down in the bottom. The skunk pulled back, perhaps realizing that it wouldn’t be able to reach the water. But then it paused, perhaps a strategy forming in its walnut-sized brain.
It reached its face back into the opening, pulled back, and dipped into the watering can again — and again. Each time, the skunk went a little deeper. Head, shoulders, torso slowly disappeared into the bright-pink cylinder, and when the skunk’s mouth finally reached the water, it paused there to take a long drink, like Winnie the Pooh with his upper body stuck in a jar of honey.
I watched closely from across the yard, worried that the skunk might get stuck and begin running around blindly with an upside-down watering can on its head, dreading the idea that I might have to rescue it. With relief I watched as the skunk pulled itself out of the opening and trotted off for the night.
So that’s why my watering can kept winding up on its side, empty, in the dirt.
We live in a residential part of San Francisco, where single family homes line the blocks, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Most have a small backyard, and the center of each block is a large green space divided by fences. Our square backyard is about 25 feet on a side. It has a small patio and a sloping garden that backs up onto our northern neighbor’s fence. Our neighbors to the west have a massive Monterey Cypress tree in their yard, and its canopy is so big that it covers our yard and the two yards to the north of us. It’s a gorgeous tree that offers a lot of shade, and a place to hang out for the neighborhood crows, ravens, hawks, and squirrels.
One of the centerpieces of our yard is a pole from which hangs three bird feeders. We keep them filled regularly, and in exchange we get to host a variety of local birds. House finches are our most regular customers, the females with their dappled grey and brown feathers, and the males ruddy on their bellies and heads. We also frequently see chestnut-backed chickadees, blue scrub jays, mourning doves, European collared doves, the occasional pigeon, and dark-eyed juncos who visit us from Canada and the Pacific Northwest in the coldest months. We also hang a hummingbird feeder for the few that live nearby.
Of all our avian visitors, the chickadees are the least shy. They will stare at you or peck at a suet feeder even if you’re just standing a few feet away. Their squeaky chirps are endearing, but my favorite thing is when they arrive at the feeders in pairs and feed each other bits of suet from their own beaks.
A backyard garden is not a wilderness. The idea of a backyard suggests manicured lawns, carefully curated landscapes, neatly laid patios and sleek backyard furniture. But even in the midst of a big city, nature still reminds us of her dominance. Elsewhere in San Francisco, a friend’s dogs (and husband!) were attacked by a coyote in their yard. Deer are glimpsed on the Golden Gate Bridge. Trees fall and kill parkgoers. We like to think we can tame these little plots of land we occupy, but in the end, we get very little say.
And that’s part of the joy of a backyard. I often find myself at the windows, or sitting on our backyard bench, watching as the finches tussle and squawk at each other, negotiating whose turn it is at the feeder. When the doves settle down on their haunches in the yard and their eyes begin to close sleepily, I feel grateful that I’ve created a space where they can find rest. I laugh every time I hear a cluster of ravens gabbing in the cypress overhead, and thrill when the juncos return each fall.
Skunks aren’t the only critters attracted by the bird seed that inevitably falls to the ground. Several gray squirrels live nearby, chasing each other through our yard and up the cypress tree in their mating rituals, foraging in our yard for castoff seed and burying sunflower seeds in my potted plants with the aim of digging them up in winter when food is theoretically scarce. We’ve tried a variety of things to keep them from eating directly out of the feeders, including putting a barrel-shaped barrier on the bird feeder pole, but they learned to climb the bushes and jump across. They hang upside down from their feet on the feeders and eat their fill, like the world’s plushest bats. At night, neighborhood rats copy this move. Sometimes I go out in the yard and hear them jumping from the feeders and scurrying away into the darkness.
For awhile, the skunks were no bother. When they first caught wind of the bird feeders, they started digging under our fences at dusk to nose around in the dirt and eat discarded seeds. Despite their reputation as stinkers, skunks are undeniably cute and have impressively fluffy tails. Their eating of plant-destroying grubs and other pests benefits the garden. Unfortunately, our cat has had more than a few run-ins with the local skunks, and has been sprayed in the face twice (she didn’t learn her lesson after the first time). But my feelings soon began to change.
In 2019, I took on the massive project of fully weeding and sheet mulching our yard to make way for a new garden full of herbs, shade plants, succulents and California natives. Sheet mulching is the process of removing all weeds, laying down a barrier of cardboard, and covering it all with a few layers of mulch. This helps suppress the weeds, which our garden sorely needed. For many years, springtime has brought of carpet of invasive oxalis, mallow, poisonous nightshades, and stinging nettles. I also planted a nasturtium vine which, over time, attempted to commandeer the entire yard like a dictator in a new government. In the summer and fall all the weeds would die back, leaving an ugly, brownish carpet full of burrs and foxtails. I dreamed of taming those weeds, deploying an army of blooms, California native plants, lavender and rosemary, and carpets of moss and violets to smother them out.
However, as I finished sheet mulching the yard and began to plant my foxgloves, hostas, ferns and hydrangeas, the skunks would come around in the evenings and undo all my hard work. Their offenses went far beyond tipping over my watering can. They tore the cardboard to shreds, dug up the new plants and moist fresh soil in their crusade for bugs, and generally trashed the garden like frat boys on a bender. I was torn. I love that we have created a space that so many kinds of wildlife enjoy, but I didn’t want these skunks continually killing my plants. But there was no way I would remove the bird feeders to keep the skunks away. So I had to think of something else.
I started by changing the kind of birdseed I put in the feeders. I was using black oil sunflower seeds; they’re popular with a wide variety of birds, but the birds would sometimes toss them, unshelled, onto the ground for rats, squirrels and skunks to discover. I replaced them with shelled sunflower seeds, which definitely cut down on the amount of seed on the ground, but not enough to discourage critters from sweeping in at night to clean up the crumbs.
Next I crept around the perimeter of the yard, looking for places where the skunks were getting in. Skunks have large paws with long claws, making them excellent diggers, and I found at least three small tunnels under our fences. Two were easy to block off with prefab wire barriers, but one area was so deeply dug out below the wooden fence line that the skunks just dug underneath, and one juvenile skunk was small enough to squeeze between the bars of the wire barrier. In that spot I piled large pieces of concrete, rocks, and anything else I thought might deter a skunk. None of it worked. Somehow they always got through.
Desperate, I went on Amazon and ordered a device that flashes a bright strobe light and makes a high-pitched, ultrasonic noise when it detects motion. Skunks and other pests don’t like the lights and noise, or so the theory goes. When I took the device out of the box, I realized how much it resembled Wall-E or Number Five, the robot from Short Circuit. Surely Wall-E and Number Five wouldn’t let me down, right?
The night I installed it, a young skunk breezed past the thing like it was entering a busy nightclub, on its way to the bar for a drink. I went out and chased the skunk back through the tunnel under the fence. It stood on the other side, poking its velvet nose through the wire barrier, eyes sparkling as it watched the device strobe and whine. The skunk seemed to be enjoying it.
The next night, not only did skunks return, but a trio of fat raccoons came to visit. Two were near the base of the birdfeeder, chowing down. One was standing next to the device, peering around to the front of it, as if to determine how to make it flash and squeal. The raccoon pulled back to the side of the thing and poked its face forward repeatedly, testing some sort of scientific theory. When I came out to the yard to shoo it and its mates away, it swiveled its head around to stare at me intently, as if to say, “Do you mind?” I wondered if raccoons were drawn by the sound of these devices, since only residents with food or other delicious valuables to protect would bother to install them.
Now not only did I have skunks in my yard unearthing and slowly killing my new plants, but now I had raccoons devouring whatever they could find. They ate our strawberries and the baby squashes growing on our vines. After the skunk’s adventure with the watering can, I started putting out a bowl of water to keep it from getting its head stuck. The raccoons began using it to wash their hands, but if the bowl was too dry or muddy, they would use the bird bath, occasionally tipping it over and damaging more plants in the process. On the one hand, I admired my ability to develop something of an animal-friendly ecosystem. On the other, it was like being visited nightly by furry vandals.
After some weeks of exasperation, I felt a bit like Bill Murray’s gopher-plagued character in Caddyshack. I hauled two paint cans full of cement from the garage to fortify the barricade where the remaining skunk tunnel was. They were round and sat at awkward angles, so I wasn’t sure how well they would work. But it seemed worth a try.
My family and I were having dinner one evening when we heard our cat, Pigeon, meowing plaintively from … somewhere. After looking all over the house, we realized she was in our neighbor’s yard, just outside our kitchen window. And she was acting like she couldn’t remember how to get home.
I went downstairs and got a ladder and flashlight to guide Pigeon home. As I brought the ladder into the yard, a small skunk dashed from the bird feeders around the side of our backyard shed. And then squeezed its way underneath the foundation.
It was probably now trapped inside the yard, while any others were trapped outside. I could temporarily remove the concrete paint cans — and hope it would leave and its friends wouldn’t enter. That seemed unlikely.
I opened my laptop and started researching. I found the name of a trapping service that promised to release captured animals in a habitat that was suitable for them—and far away from people. A trapper arrived just after 5 p.m. the next day. He hauled a large wire mesh cage from the truck and scooted it into place between our shed and the fence. He placed a small paper cup of dog food into the back of the trap—the best skunk bait is apparently dog kibble or marshmallows—and dusted himself off. “Call us once you catch something,” he said, handing me a business card.
I looked out the back door hourly, peering across the yard to see if the trap had shut. By 8, just as dusk was turning into night, the front door of the trap had closed, and the cage was wiggling slightly. Relief washed through me. I wanted to move closer, to see the curious dark eyes and long snout of my backyard hooligan, but I was afraid it would spray. The next morning, my daughter went out to peek and found that the skunk was asleep, curled up in a ball like a cat.
A different man from the trapping company came out that day, wrapping the cage completely in a blue plastic tarp so the skunk inside wouldn’t see us and get scared. As he loaded it into his truck, I asked, “Where do you take them?”
He waffled, probably not wanting to tell me exactly where, in case the information could get him in trouble. “I take them far away from people, to a place where they can find their own habitat,” he sighed. “I know some companies kill the animals, but I can’t do it.”
As he drove away, I imagined the skunk being let go in a state park somewhere, running free beneath the trees and burrowing under a manzanita bush for shelter. I worried that it might not be able to find food, having lived its short life within walking distance of a steady source of bird seed and bugs. But it had also been resourceful, overcoming every barrier I attempted to put in its way, persistently finding food and water and creating a nest as close to those necessities as possible. Our little trespasser was a survivor. I was sure of it.
We haven’t had any more skunks in our yard since that day. All of the other critters keep coming — the birds, the squirrels, the raccoons and rats, and neighborhood cats yearning to unleash their wild sides. Some of the plants the skunk dug up have died, but the rest are recovering, even thriving. I miss the skunk sometimes, but I’m glad I protected the plants in my little ecosystem. That still feels like the right choice.
Most days I am grateful for how much life our little urban backyard can support. But it’s also a constant process of adjustment, of refinement. We’ve had so many finches this fall that a few smacked into our windows and died. I’ve since placed decals in the windows in the shapes of predatory birds, which keeps the smaller avians from flying into them. One afternoon while kneeling down to weed my strawberries, I watched as a young Cooper’s hawk perched on the fence overhead and stared down at me, working out whether I could serve as a meal. It flew off into the cypress when I stood up, but I often hear it crying as it circles the block, looking for smaller prey, and I pray that it won’t attack one of the local cats.
I am, of course, fooling myself to think that I can control any of this. I can influence these flora and fauna a little around the edges, attempt to provide sustenance and perhaps make their world slightly safer. When a predatory neighbor cat comes, I shoo them away. When a half-dozen doves settle in across the yard and their eyelids begin to droop, I feel like I’ve done good by them. But the feathers in the yard tell me that sometimes the raccoons find a live snack, and it probably won’t be long before another skunk digs its way under our fences and discovers that our yard is full of tasty morsels. As long as they don’t murder my plants, I’ll probably let them stay.
About Beth Winegarner
Beth Winegarner is an author, journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Washington Post and many others. Her latest book is Tenacity: Heavy Metal in the Middle East and Africa. She lives in San Francisco, where she’s a member of the Writers Grotto and a co-producer of a literary podcast, The GrottoPod. For more, visit www.bethwinegarner.com.