My subject this week was suggested by an odor my daughter and I caught as we were walking in our pasture. It wasn’t very strong. But it was unmistakable, a whiff of eau de skunk.
We stopped and looked around. I wanted to see the little stinker — before it saw us — if we were within zone of liquid protection of a black and white kitty with a fluid drive.
A striped skunk is black and conspicuously marked with white. It’s white on the back of its head. It has a narrow white stripe over its head and down its face to its nose and it has two broad white stripes down its back onto its tail.
An adult is about the size of a house cat, its head and body slightly over a foot long to a foot and a half, its tail seven to 10 inches. Its forelegs are shorter than its hind legs which gives it a somewhat hump-backed appearance.
A safe distance from a skunk is 15 feet. Fifteen feet is reported to be the maximum range of its odious spray, except when there’s a wind blowing from the skunk in your direction. Don’t assume once a skunk has sprayed its safe to move closer. It can spray four, five or even six times in succession.
You can get closer to a skunk than 15 feet if you move slowly and quietly. You can even pick a skunk up without being sprayed if you do it the right way, or so I’ve read. Get in a position where the skunk will walk by you. Then wait. When the skunk gets close, reach out, grab it by its tail and lift it, holding it with head hanging down. I’ve never tried it but a friend told me he saw someone pick a skunk up that way and neither he nor the skunk catcher got sprayed.
A skunk’s odor comes from two scent glands at the base of its tail, one on either side of its anus. To spray it has to raise its tail at a sharp angle above its back.
The striped skunk is one of the most widely distributed mammals of North America. Its range is from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast and from northern Canada and southeastern Alaska south through the southern states and into northern Mexico. Its habitat is open woodlands but a wandering skunk will often venture into open fields.
A skunk is primarily nocturnal. But like with its habitat, a skunk is adaptable. I have seen skunks wandering around during the day on a number of occasions, including days when the sky was clear and the sun was high in the sky.
Skunks are also primarily insect eaters. Grasshoppers are a favorite fare but they also eat beetles, other insects and insect larvae which should make them friends of farmers. But skunks kill chickens and eat their chicks and eggs, too. They eat ground nesting birds when they can catch them and the eggs and nestlings of such birds. They eat mice and rats, snakes and frogs. They eat crayfish, minnows and turtle eggs.
Skunks make dens in holes, deserted woodchuck burrows, caves, hollow logs, crevices in stone walls. They go to their dens and are inactive during inclement winter weather. Their heart rate slows but not enough to be termed true hibernation and on warmer days in winter they often wake and go wandering.
Skunks mate in late winter or early spring and give birth in late April or early May. Raising the young is entirely up to the female. When they are three or four weeks old, she starts leading them out of the den, first on short exploratory trips, then on longer expeditions.
Skunks are now out and about. Watch for them.