The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Monday, February 16, 2004

Skunk Activity is Early this Year
Ro Wauer, February 15, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Driving the county roads, I have noticed that road-killed skunks have suddenly increased, far beyond the numbers expected during most of the year. The reason is simple: male skunks are out and about seeking a mate, and may wander considerable distances while searching for a lady skunk. Like so many other critters, including humans, when skunks turn their attention to mating, they are more prone to ignore dangers that they might otherwise heed.

Skunks normally live a solitary existence, only pairing up during their spring breeding season, starting in February and lasting sometimes until late March. It is then when the males go courting. But once mating is complete, both sexes go their own way, although he continues to seek out additional girlfriends. Three to six young are born in May or June. The young are blind and helpless, they can walk and play in about a month, and are as large as adults in three months.

The majority of the skunks found in South Texas are the striped skunks, easily identified by the white double-stripe down their black back. The also have a white spot on their nose. But they otherwise are all black. They can weigh up to 14 pounds, according to age and the amount of fat. Females are about 15 percent smaller than males.

All skunks possess scent glands with an obnoxious odor that they can spray at an antagonist when disturbed. Although it may seem that the typical skunk odor is commonplace, they spray only as a last resort. Of course, road-kills smell whenever their scent glands are crushed. The glands, located near the base of the tail, are normally activated only after the animal warns the intruder first. It first will audibly strike the ground with its forefeet and even make short rushes at its enemy before actually using its potent spray. It finally will bring its rear around toward its enemy, with its tail erect, and then discharge fine yellow droplets through small ducts that open inside the anus. These glands are encased in muscles that can be voluntarily controlled by the animal when the situation demands it. The powerful scent may be detected miles away during favorable weather.

Although skunks are usually considered bad neighbors, due to their odor and an occasional invasion of chicken coops, they normally are good friends of farmers and ranchers. Typical skunk food includes grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, snakes, frogs, rodents, crabs, and an occasional bird and egg. The skunk's few enemies consist of humans, large dogs, and great horned owls, the only nighttime predators large enough and aggressive enough to kill a skunk. Even the larger coyotes and foxes normally shy away from an encounter with a skunk. The skunk's powerful defense immunizes them effectively from most potential enemies.

The two additional skunks found in South Texas include the smaller and less common Eastern spotted skunk and larger Eastern hog-nosed skunk. Spotted skunks possess numerous white markings and are far more secretive. The hog-nosed skunk has a longer snout and an all-white back and tail; it is more numerous in the south and only rarely reported in the Coastal Bend.

Skunks are mammals, giving birth to live young and possessing mammary glands. They belong to the family Mustilidae, as are badgers and weasels. Although some folks make pets of very young animals, and they often are loving pets that get along just fine, older skunks, unless they are descented, can pose a problem. It is best to leave wild animals in the wild.


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