Photo by Joan Herrmann If you see a big fluffy white tail, you’re looking at the business end of Mephitis mephitis.

Photo by Joan Herrmann
If you see a big fluffy white tail, you’re looking at the business end of Mephitis mephitis.

by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander…Striped skunks seldom get the endearing or adorable titles that otters or raccoons sometimes do, even its Latinized name Mephitis mephitis, means noxious or foul smelling odor. But, the fact is that the striped skunk is a gentle and generally harmless animal. It was even portrayed as a sweet character by Walt Disney in the movie Bambi. How many of you remember the line “You can call me Flower if you want to.” Striped skunks are familiar mammals with broad white stripes on either side of a wide black stripe which runs down the middle of its back. Its tail, legs, feet and face are black and the face has a white vertical stripe which runs from its nose to its forehead. Skunks are polygamous which means they mate with more than one partner of its species. They are omnivores eating whatever is in season. In the early spring voles, and in later spring and early summer the large white grubs of both Japanese and June beetles. A sign of skunks and grubs in your yard are two inch holes in your lawn.
In midsummer insects such as grasshopper, crickets, beetles, bird and turtle eggs as well as berries are the choice foods. Skunks can be found eating fruits; blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in summer, and apples, grapes in autumn. Late autumn and early winter meals are once again voles and also mice, shrews and even small rabbits.
Skunk’s feet have bare soles and they walk with their toes and metatarsals flat on the ground. The forefeet have five long curved claws which enable them to dig while the hind feet have much shorter and straighter claws. And of course for protection they have two highly developed scent glands on either side of the anus. Each gland can hold a little more than one tablespoon of musk, this oily mixture of strong odorous musk when sprayed can be an effective defense. Spraying this fine mist is a last resort method for the skunk, it will try to run away first. It will also stomp its front feet, it may hiss or growl, but when it lifts its tail and, while looking at you, brings the rear of its body around towards its head, you better be more than 15 feet away because the spray can travel at least that distance.
Unfortunately our dog learned the hard way and I was happy that a local groomer was able to treat him. The tomato juice did nothing to eliminate the smell, but my dog was happy to lick off the juice. She gave me her recipe for future use if needed. The mixture consists of one teaspoon baby shampoo, one quart of hydrogen peroxide and one fourth of a cup of baking soda. I have learned if your clothes become saturated too, they can be washed in a solution of liquid detergent and household ammonia in equal parts.
Males are about ten percent larger than females. Adult skunks can weigh six to twelve pounds. The word skunk is the common name it was given by the Native Americans; another name for skunks is polecat which refers to a European animal which also scents its predators. Baby skunks are called kits. The adults usually mate sometime within February to mid April. A single male may have a harem of several females. He will mate and defend her from other males for about 35 days. After a female has mated she confines herself to a den. The kits will be born sometimes between mid May and early June. A female may give birth to five to ten kits. I learned that one female gave birth to 18 kits, I image that it was quite a sight to behold the female being followed with 18 little ones following behind all running with their tails held high in the air.
The kits are born blind, but will open their eyes within three weeks. They have a sparse covering of fur and weigh a little more than an ounce. They will be weaned around six weeks. Their scent glands will still be underdeveloped but they quickly assume a defensive position when threatened, and at three months will be independent. A skunk’s life span is two to four years in the wild.
Skunks are able to dig a den, but will most often use an unused den of another mammal. An abandoned den of ground hog may be used for giving birth and raising the kits. Ground hog dens are also used for winter dormancy. They do not have a true hibernation and if the weather warms up in winter you may see them wandering around at night. Unfortunately you may also see them as road kill. Bald eagles may be seen eating the carcasses. Birds of prey such as great horned owls may take advantage of a skunk leaving its den on a mild winter night too. Although skunks are basically solitary animals throughout the year, in winter they become communal, with never more than one male but many females in the den. Dens have been found with other species also in the den too, such as ground hogs and opossums.
Skunks can be found in rural, suburban and urban areas, they are opportunist and, like raccoons, will feed on garbage and dog or cat food which is not contained. Culverts and areas beneath porches can easily become dens. Bird seed is another favorite food, which I learned a few years ago. I feed the birds black-oiled sunflower seeds in tube feeders hung from our balcony. Occasionally I will throw some seeds onto the ground below the balcony for the wild turkeys. I was truly surprise one July evening while retrieving the tube feeders, which I bring in at night, to see a female skunk and three kits feeding on the ground seed. They were not the least bothered by me, as I was about twelve feet above them. A few times the kits would look up at me and then just continue to glean the seeds. It unintentionally provided a few photo opportunities. The next night when I went out to remove the feeders there was a raccoon (the reason why I remove the feeders at night) about to climb the balcony, by the smell it was obvious that it had met the skunks too.