An Odiferous Sign of Spring
Winter certainly has its charms, but by February many of them have worn off and the longing for spring begins in earnest. While we know that the harbingers of spring are just around the corner, there is already a pungent odor in the air that proclaims wintertime is almost over. Long before the first blush of springtime green covers the land, before the first of the male red-winged blackbirds arrive to claim their stake, it is the musky smell of the striped skunk that first announces that spring is on its way.
At this time of year, you may notice more skunks on the roadsides. If the smell alone weren’t enough to identify the victim, their distinctive look surely seals the case. With their black fur, pointed faces, bushy tails, and those two white stripes extending down their backs, striped skunks are one of the most easily identified mammals in Illinois. On some individuals the white stripes do not extend all the way down the back, or the stripes may be absent completely. Striped skunks also usually have a small white streak extending from just above the nose to the forehead. As to their size, striped skunks average 22 to 26 inches in total length and weigh 3 to 12 pounds, with males typically being larger than the females.
While winter roads can be treacherous for skunks to cross, it may not be along a roadway that you encounter the first skunk of the season but in your own yard. Skunks use abandoned woodchuck, muskrat, fox, or badger burrows and often rest above ground during the warmer months. They will also use stumps and rock or brush piles as den sites. However, if natural denning sites are not available, skunks are more than willing to hunker down for the winter under decks and porches. The smell emanating from under the stairs may be your first clue that you’ve got a wild neighbor, but their tracks can be useful for identification as well.
Skunk tracks look somewhat like cat tracks, but skunks have five toes whereas cats have four toes on each foot. Another way to distinguish between skunk and cat tracks is the claw marks. Cat claws are retractable and do not show in their tracks. Skunks have long claws on their front feet to aid them in digging for their favorite foods. The claw marks of skunks are usually present, and the claw marks will be longer on the tracks of the front feet than on the longer hind feet.
Skunks do not hibernate, but they may sleep for extended periods during the winter. Although skunks are typically solitary animals, they are sometimes found in communal dens. The occasional spike in temperature or a need for food may draw them out on a winter day. However, skunks are nocturnal and are seen most often at dusk and in the early morning hours.
These mesopredators are omnivorous but are mainly insectivores. Skunks prefer to eat insects—particularly grasshoppers, beetles and crickets. They also eat grubs and other insect larvae as well as bees and wasps. When the opportunity arises, they will take mice, rats, moles, shrews, young ground squirrels and rabbits, nesting birds, nestlings, and bird or snake eggs. Skunks will also eat corn, berries and other vegetation. And they sometimes supplement their diet with garbage or pet food that has been left outside. So to deter skunks from visiting your home, be sure these items are properly stored.
Considered to be habitat generalists, skunks are often found along habitat edges near a source of water. Skunks may be found in woodlands, along fence rows, in agricultural areas, and in urban environments such as lawns, cemeteries, and golf courses, but they do have habitat preferences. A recent study, Influence of Habitat on Presence of Striped Skunks in Midwestern North America, used a species distribution model to examine potential striped skunk presence in a 16,058 km2 portion of southern Illinois. The researchers found that the highest probability (greater than 75 percent) of striped skunk presence was in areas with deciduous and mixed forests, especially in large, contiguous patches of forest. They also found that developed open space, such as lawns and golf courses, in the study in area also had high probability (greater than 65 percent) of striped skunk presence. Cultivated croplands, wetlands, and areas often inundated by water were the land cover classes least likely to be used by striped skunks.
These results are similar to those of another study, Potential distribution of coyotes (Canis latrans), Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), and raccoons (Procyon lotor) in the Chicago Metropolitan Area, that modeled the potential distribution of these four mesopredators in a 17,361-km2 portion of the Chicago Metropolitan Area. In this study, researchers found that coyotes had the greatest area of potential distribution followed by opossums, striped skunks and raccoons. They found that distance to forest was the most important predictor for all species modeled (82 to 96 percent) and that there was a higher probability of presence for all four species closer to forest and further from tertiary roads. However, coyotes and raccoons were predicted to prefer habitat closer to highly developed areas.
These types of large-scale distribution model studies are useful to wildlife managers because they are cost-effective predictors of habitat suitability and connectivity across broad landscapes. Having a handle on where skunks are likely to occur is important since this species is well-adapted to living in proximity to people and they can be carriers of an array of diseases including canine distemper virus, leptospirosis, tularemia, and rabies which can be passed to other wildlife, domestic animals and people. Which is a good reason to give skunks their space, not to mention their famous method of defense.
Generally, healthy striped skunks are docile and prefer to avoid conflict. They are small, they don’t have a strong bite, and their eyesight is quite poor. To defend themselves they rely on their scent glands which produce a musk of butyl mercaptan that has a strong, sulfur-smelling odor. When threatened, a skunk will raise its tail and stamp its front feet. If the predator does not back away after being warned, the skunk quickly twists its body into a U-shape, sprays the threat, and makes it move to escape.
While this stinky defense mechanism is probably the best-known trait of striped skunks, another less-known characteristic is that this species goes looking for love much earlier in the year than many of the other mesopredators in Illinois. Not content to wait for spring, by Valentine’s Day many skunks will have already found their mate. Skunks are polygamous and mate between mid-February and mid-March. Gestation takes 62 to 66 days, and the female has one litter of 4 to 8 young in May or early June. The female will care for the young without assistance from the male.
The newborn young develop fur by their second week, and their eyes open around 3½ weeks of age. They will stay in the den until they are old enough to venture out on hunting expeditions with their mother, typically around seven weeks of age. Skunks are fully weaned by the time they are two months old, and they will spend the summer learning how to hunt. In the fall, young skunks will disperse to find their own territories. So be on the lookout now on the roadways and slow down for these black and white wintertime romantics and remember to slow down on the roads again in the late summer and fall for their offspring.
Laura Kammin is an Educational Programming Specialist with Lewis and Clark Community College. She formerly held positions at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, University of Illinois Extension, Prairie Rivers Network and the Illinois Natural History Survey. She received her master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.