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The payoff for a brutal winter

We sloshed through heavy snow amid record-setting frigid temperatures for months and looked forward to spring, only to see typically vigorous shrubs and plants toasted from the winter burn.

If there is an upside to a brutal winter, it’s hard to see it. But it exists in what we don’t see.

Let’s start with skunks. Though they help control the mice, beetle and other rodent populations, they batter us (and our beloved pets) with their stench.

Recent mild winters by Chicago standards had led to an increase in the skunk population and the possibility of a spike in rabies.

“We were getting ready for a rabies outbreak,” said Stan Gehrt, an ecology professor at Ohio State University who conducts wildlife research in Cook County. “Maybe we won’t see it.”

Skunks tend to be loners, Gehrt told me, with the young separating from their mothers much sooner than most animals. “Skunks have no use for each other until you get cold temperatures, generally in November,” Gehrt said. “Then they seek winter dens being used by multiple skunks. They can transmit diseases easily.”

If disease doesn’t kill them, starvation can in a prolonged cold spell. “They don’t hibernate but they become inactive,” Gehrt said. “Their metabolism is still high, burning calories. They’ll literally starve to death.”

The cold took its toll on all aspects of wildlife but also left a silver lining in some cases.