CHICAGO — Chicago's skunks are becoming more urban.
Mostly confined to the suburbs and neighborhoods on the edge of the city, the striped, stinky creatures have started to waddle much closer to Downtown, according to findings from the camera trap program created by Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute.
Skunks in the past year have been photographed in Albany Park, Avondale, Lawndale, Lincoln Park, Little Village and Uptown, much closer to the city's center than ever before.
"We're starting to see them at more locations throughout the city," said Liza Lehrer, an urban wildlife ecologist with the zoo. "Urban wildlife is so exciting because people don't realize the rich amount of biodiversity we have in the city. This is a perfect example of that."
Lehrer said zoo researchers have never seen skunks so close to Chicago's skyline.
"Any time we start to see animals in new areas, that's exciting," Lehrer said.
A trio of skunks captured on a Chicago camera. [Lincoln Park Zoo]
Skunks had previously never been photographed by the camera traps except on the Northwest Side in neighborhoods like Edison Park, Jefferson Park and Forest Glen. Within city limits, they also are in Far Southwest Side neighborhoods including Beverly and Far Southeast Side locales like Hegewisch, but the institute hasn't installed camera traps in those places yet.
Lehrer said it's possible there are skunks Downtown, but they haven't been photographed.
"With urban wildlife, anything is possible," she said.
The camera trap program began in May 2010 and has captured millions of photos of the city's wildlife. The institute installed more than 100 infrared camera traps, which sense an animal's heat and motion, along three transects — or sampling lines — that start Downtown and head out of the city.
There are 41 camera traps within city limits, and all are near the transects, which run along the Chicago River heading northwest, Roosevelt Road running due west, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal going southwest. The exact locations of the camera traps have not been revealed because the devices are sometimes stolen or vandalized.
People can help identify the animals photographed by the camera traps as part of the Chicago Wildlife Watch program.
Skunks have few natural predators because of the foul-smelling oily liquid they spray from their backsides. Lehrer said only domestic dogs haven't figured out they should avoid the striped mammals.
Skunks live about three years, and have their babies in late spring/early summer. The young skunks have started emerging with their moms this month, but they'll soon become solitary creatures, Lehrer said.
Skunks like to use burrows created by other animals like woodchucks, so if you don't want them in your yard, make sure those holes are covered or sealed, Lehrer said. Skunks also will seek dark, cool areas under porches or foundations, so those areas should be monitored as well. Trash cans should be secured as well.
Lehrer said the camera trap program also has photographed mink, beaver and muskrats within city limits, and flying squirrels and grey foxes in the suburbs.
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