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Skunk Sense

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 8, 2010

Marvin was fat, friendly and pampered. Unconcerned with the gawking child in front of him, he sprawled in my great-uncle’s large embrace, switched his bushy tail and flexed his long toenails in a stretch.

Part of me badly wanted to reach out and stroke his shiny ebony-ivory fur—the rest of me was frozen to the spot.

Uncle Pat laughed softly at my discomfort. He was pleased with the effect of his parlor-trick.

“That’s not a cat,” I finally whispered.

“No, not a cat,” confirmed my uncle, “but he’s alright.”

And he was. I eventually did stroke Marvin’s fur, if only tentatively, and it was a thrill. After all, there is no more feared predator in the urban neighborhoods of bucolic Vermont, where I was raised, than the common skunk. Petting one was not generally on the menu of options when they shot out from under porches or ambled purposely through the bushes.

Yet, for all of Marvin’s charm and patience, and despite the many years he trundled around Uncle Pat’s home, traumatizing and then wooing visitors, no one was ever truly comfortable in his presence. Marvin retained the full potential of his scent glands, and therefore commanded more respect than the average house pet.

I still feel that mixture of fascination and fear when I find a skunk in my path. And though I know now that wild animals should never, under any circumstances, be considered pet-worthy, for the sake of human and animal alike, I can’t help but enjoy their antics from a distance. A good, upwind distance.

It’s hard not to be amused by these readily identified, smallish mammals that waddle, stamp their short legs when angered and send the most fearless outdoor folks running. These characteristics have certainly factored into the skunk’s infamy and its prominence in humor through the centuries, from the myths of indigenous people to popular films and children’s programs.

Though prohibited as pets in Missouri, skunks can also be a joy and a nuisance outside your home. But more importantly, they fill a crucial niche in Missouri’s web of flora and fauna.

Little Stinkers

Skunks belong to the family Mephitidae, which means, aptly, “bad odor” in latin. Until recently, skunks were considered members of the weasel family Mustelidae. However, recent genetic findings have allowed them to be reclassified into their own family.

There are two species of skunk in Missouri, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis or “bad odor, bad odor”) and the Eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius or “smelly spotted weasel” in Greek).

Both species are mostly black with white markings. The striped skunk has two white stripes on its back that meet at its head and tail. The spotted skunk’s markings aren’t spots necessarily, but a series of broken white stripes running the length of its body.

The striped skunk varies in length from 20–30 inches and weighs 3.5–10 pounds. The smaller spotted skunk is only 14–22 inches and weighs about three-quarters of a pound—considerably less than the average house cat. Though they rarely live longer than three years in the wild, skunks in captivity may reach 10 or more years of age.

Both species of skunk are notorious for their primary method of defense, discharging a noxious spray from two internal scent glands located at the base of their tail. These open to the outside through small nipples. They have voluntary control over these glands and can aim behind, to either side, or to the front by changing their posture and the direction of the nipples. The glands hold approximately 1 tablespoon of the foul musk, enough for five or six rounds. The secretion is not only smelly, but a powerful eye irritant. The mist can travel as far as 10 feet.

Without this defense, skunks would provide an easy meal for many predators. Luckily, they usually give a series of warnings before spraying. They might stomp their feet, bare their teeth, grunt, arch their back, raise their fur, and most ominously—stand on their front legs and lift their tail. Any creature that stays for the end of this dramatic display gets the grand finale. Don’t depend on a skunk to be this patient, however.

No Place Like Hole

The larger, more common striped skunk is found throughout the state, whereas the spotted skunk is rare. Only small numbers of this protected species are found in the Ozark highland region of southern Missouri. The home range of skunks is one-half to 2 miles in diameter, but they may only travel one-quarter to one-half mile in an evening of foraging.

Skunks prefer borders, brushy field corners, fence rows and open grassy fields broken by wooded ravines and rocky outcrops, where permanent water is nearby. They typically den in the ground, digging their own burrows or using sites excavated by other animals. They may also take up residence in rocky crevices, stumps, caves, wood piles, haystacks and under buildings and porches. These last two locations do not add to the skunk’s popularity, as their odor sometimes permeates the structure around them.

Although they do not hibernate, skunks acquire a layer of fat in the fall and spend more time in their dens as the weather grows colder. When temperatures near freezing, they may sleep for extended periods, only emerging to hunt during periods of warmer weather or in protected locations such as barns. Several skunks may den together during these colder months.

Clean-Up Crew

Skunks are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat just about anything. They’ll consume a variety of plants and animals during the fall and winter, including carrion, but depend on insects in the summer. Grasshoppers, beetles and crickets are prime summer snacks, but white grubs, cutworms, tobacco worms and other insect larvae are also common foods. They will happily dig insect pests out of your lawn as well, but they might not be tidy about it.

Mice, rats, moles, shrews, ground squirrels, young rabbits, chipmunks, lizards, salamanders, frogs, earthworms, turtle eggs and the eggs of ground-nesting birds also feature on skunk menus.

Skunks leave their dens in the late afternoon or early evening and forage most of the night.

Looking for Love

In late winter, sightings of skunks (and skunk remains) suddenly increase on the roadways. This is because skunk breeding season begins in February and males range widely, often leaving their territories in search of a mate.

The gestation period is seven to eight weeks, with females producing one litter each year. Litters of two to 16 young have been recorded, but the average size is four to six. Young skunks are called kits.

The female raises kits alone. They are born blind and without fur, and they will suckle for six to eight weeks, until they can forage for themselves. They will stay with their mother until fall.

Eyes on the Sky

Few creatures are willing to take a skunk for a meal—except those with a nonexistent or reduced sense of smell. As with most birds, great horned owls do not have a sense of smell, and they are the skunk’s primary predator. Other avian predators may include hawks and eagles.

There is some evidence that coyotes, badgers, foxes and bobcats will also prey on skunks, but most of this information comes from researching the stomach contents of these animals. Therefore it is unknown whether the skunks were killed or eaten as carrion.

Skunk meat untainted with musk is good and tender eating, according to some people. However, most humans only take skunks accidentally, with their vehicles, leaving them on the roadways for more adventurous species to feast upon.

What a Nuisance

Despite being effective mousers, cleaning up carrion and helping to keep insect pests in check, skunks do occasionally become a nuisance. They can damage lawns and gardens in search of food, raid chicken coops and domestic animals’ food, tunnel under porches and buildings, and of course, cause a stink around homes. They might also establish their dens in places impossible to avoid for family and pets.

While most skunks are easily avoided and should be considered an asset to farms and neighborhoods, some precautions and management might be necessary.

The best methods for discouraging skunks from digging around and under structures include keeping the areas free of debris and brush piles and sealing openings in the foundations of houses and outbuildings. Only seal holes after making certain that no skunks remain under your foundation or porch. Not only is it cruel to starve the trapped animals, but they will release their scent when they die, and it will permeate the house.

Reducing skunks’ access to food sources, as well as denning sites, will make your property less appealing. Picking up pet food at night, fencing chicken coops and collecting eggs daily, and securing your trash will encourage skunks to move on. For more tips on skunk-proofing your property, or how to remove existing populations, visit our Web site, www.MissouriConservation.org, and type “skunk” in the search box. Or, call your regional Conservation Office.

Skunk Tonic

For use on people, clothing and pets.

Mix together:

1 quart of hydrogen peroxide

1/4 cup baking soda

1 teaspoon liquid laundry soap or dishwashing detergent

The first two ingredients form an alkaline peroxide that chemically changes the skunk essence into sulfonic acid, an odorless chemical. The soap breaks down the oily skunk essence and makes it more susceptible to the other chemicals.

Chemicals in this formula are harmless, but try this solution at your own risk. To be safe, keep the formula away from the eyes, nose and mouth of people and pets.

Do not store this mixture or put it in a closed container. When kept in a warm place, the mixture may expand and burst the container.

This recipe and other tips can be found listed below.

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