Striped skunks (Mephitis Mephitis) are common and widespread North American mammals. The scientific name, Mephitis, comes from the Latin word, mephit, which means "bad odor." The English version, skunk, may have come from the Abenaki Indian words, segankw or segongw. Popular names for the skunk include American polecat, big skunk, common skunk, lined skunk, smell-cat, and stink-cat.
Native American Indians used skunks for food, medicine, accessories in religious ceremonies, and as the subject of art and songs. Chippewa Indians used oil from the skunk's skin as a treatment for internal worms. Other Native American Indian groups taught their children that their hair would turn white if they said anything disgusting about the skunk's odor. Various Native American Indian groups believed that a death would occur in their family if skunk built a nest under it.
Skunks are about the size of a domestic (house) cat. The head and body of a male skunk average 15 3/4 inches long and the female averages 15 1/4 inches long. The tail is 9 inches long in males and 8 3/4 inches in females. Their weight changes with the season with the lowest weight in the winter and their peak weight in the fall. Males weigh between 6 and 12 pounds and females average 4 pounds.
Skunks have a triangular shaped head which tapers to a rounded, ball-shaped nose pad. It has small, rounded ears, covered with hair. The eyes appear solid black making the pupils quite difficult to notice. The skunk's neck is thick and difficult to distinguish from its body. Its front legs are short, and the back legs are slightly longer. Its feet are plantigrade (flat foot) with 5 digits (toes) on both front and back feet. The front feet have long curved claws used for digging and are slightly webbed. The 5 digits on the back feet are short with straight claws. Females normally have 7 pairs of nipples (mammae--glands that produce milk).
Striped skunks have two main identifying features. The first is their pelage (fur) and the second is their scent. The skunk's pelage may range from solid black to black with very wide white stripes. For most skunks, the pelage is glossy black with some white striping. The striping varies widely. It may be only on the skunk's nose or on the nose and head. Other skunks have stripes on their nose, head, and back. The striping may break into 2 bars on the back, or it may appear as a wide, solid white stripe. Rarely, melanistic (all black) or albino (all white) skunks occur.
The skunk's pelage consists of 2 types of fur. The under (or inner) fur is 1-1/2 inches long, and is very soft and wavy. It is gray, tipped with black. The guard fur (outer layer) is more coarse and stiff. It ranges from 1-1/2 to 3 inches long and is either glossy black or white. The skin underneath black fur is grayish black and pinkish under white fur. The males and females have the same coloring year-round. The winter pelage is normally longer than summer pelage. The annual shedding of the underfur begins in April when it becomes matted. Replacement of the inner fur is occurs after the shedding of the guard hairs in July. Regrowth of the fur begins in July and is complete by September.
More people smell skunk the odor of than ever see one in the wild. The skunk has a well-developed scent gland located near the base of its tail. These glands can expel the musk for several feet through the anal opening. The musk itself is a sulfur-alcohol compound called butylmercaptan. Humans can detect the odor up to a mile a way and for several days later.
Striped skunks occur throughout the United States and southern Canada. Archeological evidence shows that they have lived here since pre-settlement days.
Skunks living in prime habitat vary from as low as 1 skunk per 100 acres to as high as 1 per 10.4 acres. Their home ranges vary from 503 acres to 2,011 acres for males and 40 acres for females. Skunks travel around 1 mile during their nocturnal wanderings with males traveling up to 5 miles during breeding season. The size of their home ranges varies with the season with summer ranges being smaller than fall or winter ranges.
Skunks are animals of the woods, plains, meadows, or suburbs. They are most abundant in habitat consisting of mixed agricultural and tree-cleared land, confined forest tracts or small woodlots. Ideal habitat is also near water sources.
Skunks choose den locations in wooded ravines, rolling hayfields, edges of woodlots, patches of brush, or rocky outcrops. Dens may be under stone fences or walls, in drainage ditches, under mobile homes, crawl spaces and porches, or even in vacant buildings. They choose resting areas above ground when the weather is warm.
FOOD AND FEEDING BEHAVIOR
Skunks are omnivorous eaters (eating whatever plant or animal food is available). They are crespuscular (hunt at twilight) or nocturnal (hunts at night) in habit. Animal foods consumed by skunks include rats, mice, chipmunks, and various insects. Skunks scratch in front of beehives and eat the bees which come out to investigate. Some individuals roll toads over and over on the ground before eating them, presumably to rub off the poisonous substance on their skin. They also roll caterpillars to get rid of their hair before consuming them. Some skunks eat bird or turtle eggs, breaking them by rolling them against a hard object. Some skunks return to their scats (droppings or feces of animals) to eat the beetles that feed on them.
Fruit eaten include the blackberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries, grapes, ground cherries, raspberries, and serviceberries. They also eat apples, black cherries, and plums. Skunks consume various grasses, nuts, roots, and grains.
Skunks jump on moving prey, cat fashion, and capture the prey beneath its front feet. They do not chase prey since they are slow moving. Rather, skunks lie in wait, or slowly stalk the desired prey, pouncing on it at the opportune time.
Signs that skunks feed in a particular location include shallow, ragged holes in the ground. These are the results of digging for grubs. Skunks frequently overturn cow scats in their hunt for beetles and grubs. Skunks eat insects and small mammals in the spring and summer. They eat both animal and plant matter during the fall and winter. They eat heavily during the fall to increase their stored body fat for winter survival.
REPRODUCTION AND NESTING BEHAVIOR
Skunks breed their first spring at 10 months of age. Male skunks are polygamous (many mates). They mate, separate, and look for other females for mating. Females frequently fight males that try to approach them once they have mated. Breeding takes place from late February through the middle of March.
The female builds a nest of grasses and dried leaves before giving birth. She frequently removes all grasses, etc. before the birth occurs and replaces it after the kits (baby skunks) are older. This may be a protective mechanism which prevents the young, helpless kits from becoming entangled in the nest material.
Skunk litters average 6 kits. They are born in 59-77 days after breeding. Most births take place during May. The kits weigh 1/2 ounce at birth. Their skin color reflects their future pelage coloration. Pinkish skin and sparse white hair appear where the white striping will be. Bluish skin lies where the black fur will be. The kit's tail tip, ears, lips, and genital area are completely naked.
Kits are barely able to move about when first born. The female sprawls over them when nursing. The kits instinctively reach for a nipple. She licks and cleans them each day. Females, both in the wild and in captivity, readily adopt orphaned kits. Some females have been observed coaxing orphans into their nest.
Kits are very noisy, uttering a twittering sound from birth until about 8 days of age. The pinnae (external layer of skin surrounding the ear) are folded at birth. The pinnae unfold at 8 days of age. Their eyes do not open until the kit is 22-35 days of age.
They are born with soft, white claws which darken and harden by 8 days of age. At 22 days, the kits have a full covering of fur, and can crawl around. After the kits' teeth appear at 40 days, the female begins feeding them small insects or animals. Weaning is complete in as soon as 46 days. At this time, the female begins to teach them how to hunt by leading them on foraging trips to nearby feeding grounds. By 60 days, the kits are completely independent. The family group breaks up in early July, but some maintain family ties until fall.
Kits only 8 days old can emit musk from their scent glands, although they have little ability to aim. By 32 days they can assume the well-known defensive posture with raised tail, and can release enough musk to deter intruders. Spraying (the release of musk) is instinctive since the kit doesn't have to learn how to do it. Their aim improves with practice.
Skunks are very active from March to September. Activity decreases between October and December. There is very little surface activity during the winter, between December and early March. During the winter they experience a form of dormancy (slight lowering of body temperature) but not the lowering of temperature and metabolism rates characterizing hibernation. Males are more active in winter than females and they leave their dens on warm days to seek a mate.
Skunks are usually solitary animals except during breeding time and during the winter when they share dens. Even individuals sharing winter dens remain solitary when active above the ground. Adult females do not tolerate the males after breeding season, although they will tolerate other females. Male skunks are seldom tolerant of other males on their home ranges. Family groups consist solely of the female and her young-of-the-year. The male plays no role in the family.
Skunks normally are very docile, gentle animals. Only those skunks affected with rabies will bite or attack humans or other animals. If threatened, and unable to find an escape route, the skunk will use its best defense. The skunk takes several actions before actually ejecting the musk. These include arching the back, elevating the tail, erecting tail hair, and stamping the ground with its front feet. If that fails to deter the intruder, it arches its back, shuffles backwards, and clicks its teeth. If the intruder persists, the skunk is in a good position for ejecting musk. The skunk turns its body in u-shape so both its head and anus are toward the intruder, and then ejects the musk. During the scenting process, the skunk tries to avoid fouling its own fur with scent. This is why skunks don't smell like their spray. Skunks rarely spray each other. Old wives' tales that holding its tail over the skunk's anus prevents it from ejecting the musk are false.
Musk can take two forms. The first is an invisible spray consisting of individual droplets. The second form is a short stream of rain-size droplets. Either form covers a 30-45 degree arc which strengthens the skunk's chance of hitting the intruder. Skunks also use their musk for marking home range boundaries and as communication during courtship.
Skunks can swim with a dog paddle type stroke. They gallop for short distances when speed is important. (Galloping = 2 front limbs and 2 hind limbs moving in unison, the hind feet striking the ground in front of the front feet.) Skunks often canter when moving to feeding grounds. Cantering consists of easy bounds with the back feet striking the ground alternatively between tracks made by front feet. Pacing occurs primarily while feeding. The right side limbs move together, then the left side limbs move which produces a waddling type gait. Skunks are not agile animals and walk at the speed of 1 mile per hour. They cannot climb trees.
The skunk's calls consist of low churrs and growls, shrill screeches, hissing, short squeals, grunts, and snarls. Its calls are primarily heard during mating season or feeding times. At other times the skunk is silent.
Skunks can dig their own dens when necessary. However, they readily adopt old dens from badgers, muskrats, fox, or woodchucks. Skunks prefer a den located on a slight slope or rolling type land. Plant covering usually consists of bluegrass, ragweed or hemp. The edge of woodlots, patches of brush, hayfields, fence rows, or waterways are suitable as den locations.
Dens are usually 3-4 feet below the surface of the ground and can be 18-20 feet long. Most dens have 2 or 3 different entrances. Skunks and raccoons occasionally share the same den. During winter months, opossum, rabbits, and woodchucks will share a den. Each animal makes a nest in a different burrow of the den so that no two animals are sharing the same burrow. Several skunks, usually a single male and several females, occasionally share winter dens. They huddle together to share body warmth during the winter. They use stored body fat as an energy source, and conserve energy output by practicing winter dormancy. If the weather becomes too cold, skunks plug den entrance holes with nesting materials.
Skunks live year-round in widened areas within the burrows. They locate their nests in side tunnels or compartments. These nests consist of dried plant material and are quite bulky. The striped skunk may spend its entire life moving within 1/2 to 1 mile of its den.
Several signs are available to help the naturalist locate areas of skunk activities. These include the ragged shallow holes in the ground resulting from feeding activities. The distinctive track showing the whole foot print including all toes on both front and hind feet is another sign. Careful study of placement of the tracks reveals whether the skunk was walking or galloping. Skunks tend to defecate at the same location, either in or near their dens. Dens may contain side tunnels filled with old scats (droppings or feces of animals). Trails frequently used by skunks may exhibit the characteristic skunk odor.
Skunks benefit farmers by eating grasshoppers, caterpillars, cutworms, squash bugs, May beetles, Colorado potato beetles, and hop-plant bugs. They also eat June beetles, cicadas, crickets, sphinx moths grubs, slugs, snails, mice and other small rodents. These pests severely damage or destroy crops.
Skunks transmit several diseases to humans, pets, and livestock. These diseases include leptospirosis, tularemia, and distemper. Skunks occasionally damage beehives. They frequently eat sweet corn (husk shredded in fine strips is evidence of skunk feeding activities). An occasional skunk develops a continuing taste for poultry or their eggs.
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