The Striped Skunk
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To most people, skunks are stupid, ill-tempered stinkers most often seen as roadkill, and good riddance. This couldn't be more wrong. As someone once said, if the animals visiting your yard were characters from the well-known book Gone with the Wind, the skunk would be Melanie Hamilton, the gentle, shy and patient friend of Scarlett O'Hara.
Skunks are perfectly happy to quietly go about their business of survival and let flashier animal personalities hold the limelight.
Like Melanie, a skunk will defend herself if she simply must, but only then. Should you meet her face-to-face, just back away and she'll placidly waddle off, with no hard feelings. Small and slow moving, her signature scent is her only method of defense against predators, but she prefers to keep it to herself.
Skunks are members of the weasel family, which includes river otters, minks, ferrets, wolverines, badgers, martens and, of course, weasels. All these animals emit a strong musk scent, giving rise to their scientific classification, Mustelidae, taken from the Latin for “bad odor.” (DNA analysis has convinced some taxonomists that Mustelidae belong in their own subfamily, Mephitinae.) The Striped skunk belongs to the genus, Mephitis, and his species name is mephitis. His name translates basically into "bad odor bad odor." An appropriate name.
There are eight species of skunks in North America. However, unless you live in a desert environment, the skunk visiting your yard is the Striped skunk. When urbanization overtakes this skunk, he doesn't move aside, he stays put. He's so shy, however, most of us will never encounter him. It may seem like a bad thing to have skunks visiting, but actually, as maven of domesticity Martha Stewart is fond of saying, "It’s a good thing." Really, it is.
Striped Skunk skeleton on
display at The Museum of
Osteology, Okla. City, Okla.
Striped skunks are mammals about the size of a house cat. An adult's body length is 20 to 30 inches, and the tail is six to 12 inches. Adults weight three to 15 pounds. They have a triangle-shaped head with a black nose and short ears. Their legs are short and equipped with long, strong nails. Especially the front nails, which are designed for digging. Their hair is black, with two broad, white stripes running from where they meet at the back of the head, down along the length of their body to the tail. A thin white stripe runs from their forehead to the nose. The tail is a bushy mixture of black and white hairs.
Skunks have excellent smelling and hearing, but rather poor vision, with objects going fuzzy about 10 feet away. Perhaps this is why so many are struck by autos, they just don't see them until too late.
The skunk is nocturnal. However, he also comes out at dusk and dawn, and even in daytime -- especially youngsters who come out to play.
The skunk is best known for his ability to spray a foul liquid. "Foul" is really too tame a description, isn't it? This odor identifies a skunk unmistakably, whether we can see him or not. Surprisingly, he's generally reluctant to spray. He only does it if he has to, for two reasons: He's placid by nature, preferring to avoid confrontation, and his store of spray is limited in quantity. He carries around only about a tablespoon of spray, divided between two anal glands (which he can control independently). That's enough for five or six squirts, but it's his only means of defense. It takes about 10 days for his body to completely replace his load of musk. He's loath to lose even a small amount.
Unless his situation leaves him no choice, he'll try very hard to discourage away predators before resorting to a blast of musk. He'll growl and hiss, stamp his feet, arch his back, chatter his teeth and pretend to charge his predator. He may do this several times. Finally, as a last resort he'll turn his body in a U-shape, raise his back-end off the ground and fire. The result isn't pleasant: The fluid causes eyes to sting fiercely, temporarily blinding his foe (human or otherwise). It stings the skin and might even cause nausea. The odor clings to everything it touches, refusing to be rubbed or licked off. To state the obvious, a critter doesn't mess with a skunk more than once.
It's understandable why most people have a dim view of skunks. Superficially, they seem malicious because of their spraying, dim-witted because of their slow, meandering, seemingly purposeless ways, and lazy because they don't dig their own dens. Not to mention they won't move out of the way of automobiles and there's a slight skunky odor they carry with them at all times. I'm not recommending skunk pets, but to make a point about their true nature, here's what owners of pen-bred, de-scented pet skunks have to say:
They speak of an animal who's very intelligent, willful, stubborn, curious, ornery, friendly, playful and lovable. Their skunks enjoy playing tug-of-war and being chased. They love toys, especially fuzzy ones. They can figure out how to open almost any cabinet door and even refrigerators. They litter box train themselves. They love to investigate in, on, and under everything -- sofa cushions, potted plants, drawers. They "steal" towels and clothing to add to their own bed. They don't claw furniture or chew stuff. They understand and learn to correct their naughty behavior when punished with "time out" banishments to their cage. They get along with other pets and, like them, usually have the run of the house. Some love to swim. They appear to like to please their owners and they like to be cuddled.
The Striped skunk likes open areas, or open areas bordered by forests. Our yards are a perfect habitat for him – clipped lawns dotted with islands of shade trees and shrubs. Short, stubby legs make them ill-equipped physically for a lot of traveling. Their home range may be up to 1 1/2 square miles, or as small as 20 acres. A yard offering plentiful food may reduce his range even more -- why stray too far away from a good thing?
Skunks are omnivores. They're a considerable help in keeping mice under control, as well as nuisance insects – grubs, beetles, grasshoppers, bees, wasps, crickets and larvae. They also love a meal of big, juicy spiders. Yum! And crayfish or snails. They might finish a meal off with grasses or nuts. A fruit salad in season is another preference; they’re groundskeepers who’ll eat up fallen, spoiling fruit – blackberries, blueberries, cherries. They’re especially helpful in late summer and fall when they’re feeding extra-heavy to pack on enough fat to help carry them through the winter.
Striped skunks use dens and their maternal and winter dens are below ground, often in an abandoned woodchuck den or, sometimes, the crawlspace under a house. Otherwise, they den above ground and don't stay long in one place -- it might be a culvert, rock pile, woodpile or hollow log. If they must, they'll dig their own den. But they seem to like skipping all that work and will bunk down in an existing one, if possible. They're not above sharing space with a woodchuck or, especially in winter, cuddling up to 10 or 20 other skunks. Skunks are very clean animals and careful not to musk on themselves or in confined spaces. Consequently, their dens have only a slight odor.
That "skunk" smell, by the way, arises from the sulfur content of their spray. It's composed of seven thiol and theoacetate compounds, one of which is used in perfumes because it lingers on the skin. Their spray is a thick, oily, yellowish liquid. It can be sprayed by the skunk with great accuracy up to 10 or more feet away. The smell is so potent, it can be detected by humans up to a mile or more away, as we know all-too-well!
Their den will be near water -- a stream or pond -- and within it they build a nest of leaves. It's interesting how they carry their "building materials." They don't use their mouth as the fox would do, or their tail, like the opossum. Instead, they gather leaves into a wad, which they hold tightly between their legs and shuffle it slowly to their den. Don't you have to wonder what percentage of this package successfully makes it each trip from point A to point B?
Active primarily at dusk, nighttime and dawn, the skunk family rests during the day. In winter a huge store of fat they pack on allows them to stay in their den for days or weeks at a time in a state called "torpor," especially in the cold northern states. Their heartbeat and respiration drastically slows down and body temperature drops, all this to conserve energy. Torpor seems to differ from true hibernation only in the degree of metabolic slowdown and length of time.
Mating season for the striped skunk is mid-January to mid-March, when males begin scouting for females. Males are loners and afterwards go their own way. They don't participate in the rearing of offspring. Striped skunks are able to breed at 10 months of age.
Typically five to seven offspring (called kits or cubs) are born about two months later, although 10 are possible. The kits, weighing only about an ounce, are blind, deaf and scantily furred, with white stripes just barely detectable. Only three weeks later, their scent glands are functional, just about the same time they open their eyes. Perhaps this is nature's way of offering protection to an animal who can’t hide -- the skunks' distinctive black-and-white coloration stands out in just about any environment as a warning to all to keep their distance.
At about six weeks they'll start hunting with their mother. She teaches them how to dig up grubs and to extract larvae from logs, how to raid beehives, locate rodents, route for eggs and find insects. Sometimes, as a mother is schooling her kits, she can be seen with them waddling single file behind, tiny identical versions of herself. They look very cute, but this is one time a skunk's not to be messed with -- very protective of her young, she might forgo her usual warning display and quickly spray.
The kits, playful and curious, are fully weaned at about eight weeks, but often stay with their mother until the next breeding season. The female is capable of breeding a second time in the same year, but usually doesn't, unless her first pregnancy failed. Dispersed skunks from the same litter who later meet up, appear to be overjoyed and greet by rubbing against each other and rolling around in an "embrace."
The average lifespan of the Striped skunk is about two years in the wild. Many die of starvation in their first winter. Disease also takes a toll. Many are killed by mis-guided people and fur-trappers. In captivity, skunks can live up to 15 years.
Striped skunks are safe from almost all animals except human ones driving cars, the most common cause of death. The only other serious animal predator is the Great-horned owl, who seems impervious to the foul odor.
Next time you see a skunk lying dead on the road, you'll know she wasn't rubbish, better off dead. For her offspring, she's the loss of a nurturer and devoted teacher who showed them every nook and cranny of their new world and how to live in it. To her litter mates, she's the loss of a playmate who squealed with joy when they reunited. For folks who've created a backyard wildlife habitat, she’s the loss of a valued predator.