DEAR JOAN: Do female skunks smell? That is, if they haven't sprayed recently? And do the females spray?

I seem to have a resident skunk under my back deck, but I have never smelled it. She/he is very quiet and amiable, not that I would ever approach it. I was raised in the country in Ohio and have the good sense to not mess with wild critters.

I have wondered if it was a de-scented pet that got away or if it was abandoned. The skunk and the backyard cat seem friendly enough. There is at least one male in the neighborhood. I saw it cut loose on a couple of raccoons that got too nosy, and the whole area smelled for 24 hours.

Just something I've wondered about over time.

A skunk checks out some flower pots.
A skunk checks out some flower pots. (Courtesy of Gloria Crim)

Jill Swanson

San Jose

DEAR JILL: If a skunk hasn't sprayed, it shouldn't have an offensive odor. That's not to say they smell pleasant. They are very clean animals, but they do have a natural musky odor. You'd have to get pretty close to one to smell it. As you've already experienced, anything that comes in contact with the spray will reek, and that includes the landscape, but the skunk should remain relatively unscathed.

Both male and females spray. The female only uses her spray when she is threatened. The male also uses the scent defensively, but he uses it during mating season as well.

In the winter, female skunks will often den together while the male maintains a solitary den. For that reason, I'm going to say that it's more likely your backyard visitor is a male.

If you're comfortable with having a skunk under your deck, then just continue to use caution. It may become an odoriferous issue in the spring, but skunks usually are good neighbors.

DEAR JOAN: I have a rat problem. I've been composting with earthworms for years in an open grid box to which I add leaves, garden trimmings and kitchen scraps. I also feed them some vegetables and egg shells.

Recently, I've been seeing rats on this compost quite regularly. I tried putting out sticky traps, but these rats must have gone to school. I came out to check a few hours later, and one had been turned over and the other covered with compost debris.

I keep cleaning them off, but after two weeks they appear totally untouched.

Do you have any suggestions for worm composting without rats? If my neighbors realized how many rats I've seen recently, I'm sure they would tell me to get rid of the compost.

Katherine Suri

Mountain View

DEAR KATHERINE: Please do not use the sticky traps. Rats and other animals get stuck to them and die a slow, painful death. The animals will attempt to escape the glue and have been known to rip off their fur and skin. The traps are just cruel. I'm actually glad to hear they aren't working for you.

Rats don't usually bother with worms, so if they are visiting your bin, they probably are attracted to the food. If you're using egg shells, zap them in the microwave for a few seconds, then crush them into a powder. The worms use the egg shells as grit, which helps them "chew" or digest the food they're eating. Also, try burying the food under the worm bedding.

The best solution would be to locate your bin in a garage or shed or someplace where it would be more protected from wildlife. Installing a solid floor on the bin and a lid should help, too.

Contact Joan Morris at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com.