Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells
From all the calls I get at my office and conversations down at the coffee shop about strange animals and “things in the night” folks have seen, thought they saw, heard or were told about by a friend or relative, I’m not so sure there isn’t another whole world of animals out there unknown to science. Mix in local common names, myths, legends and old wives tales passed down from generation to generation about these elusive creatures and the credibility of even the most seasoned wildlife biologist can be put in question. Civet cats are a case in point. Polecats are another story!
When I was a kid, it seemed that every “civet cat” that wandered into the small farming town where I grew up down in Central Texas found its way under our house and remained there for days. I wasn’t sure what a civet cat looked like or how big they got, but according to grandma, they were worse than polecats. There was no doubt when one got under the old house, and about all we could do was open all the windows and doors and hope for a breeze. Eventually, it would either move on or be evicted by my yard dog Jingles which was not always a good thing. Although singularly devoted to protecting the sanctity of our home and yard from all intruders, Jingles was a slow learner and invariably suffered the consequences of his loyalty. Good dog, good dog – now go away – far, far away! Bathing Jingles in a concoction of tomato juice and peroxide to rid him of the malodorous spray from the civet cat seemed to just transfer the smell from him to me. I never did actually see one of those civet cats but imagined them to be vicious cat-like creatures that could whip their weight in yard dogs.
The Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius) or “civet cat” is neither a civet nor a cat, rather a member of the North American Family Mephitidae that includes other Texas species such as Stripped Skunk, Hooded Skunk, Hog-nosed skunk and Western Spotted Skunk. True civets belong the weasel-cat-like Family Viverridae found in Asia and Africa that also includes the mongoose. The scientific name Spilogale is Greek for spotted (spilo) weasel (gale). The species name putorius is Latin and refers to the smell. The Eastern Spotted Skunk ranges from the Texas Panhandle across North Texas and east of the Balcones Escarpment into Central, East and South Texas. It’s replaced in the Trans Pecos region by the Western Spotted Skunk (Spilogale gracilis.)
Spotted skunks are half to a third the size of their striped skunk cousin, averaging about 22 inches from nose to tip of tail. They’re more weasel-like with a small head and short ears. Markings include a white spot on their forehead and in front of each ear, six distinct white strips down their back and sides and two uninterrupted white bands across their rump. Other white spots decorate their posterior near the base of their tail which is usually solid black with a white tip. An adult will tip the scales at about two pounds. There are five toes on each foot with the claws on their front feet being twice a long as those on the hind feet. In the wild, they’ll live only one to two years.
Spotted skunks are solitary and more nocturnal than other skunk species. I have encountered only one or two over the years while conducting deer spotlight surveys at night here in North Texas. They prefer wooded areas or tall-grass prairies with rocky outcrops and crevices where they hunt for food. Being good climbers, they can climb into trees to den in hollows or cavities. They also dig burrows in the ground or confiscate those dug by other animals or take up residence in hollow logs, abandoned (or occupied) buildings or rock and brush piles. Although they don’t hibernate, they may sleep for up to a month at a time during the winter by living on stored fat in their bodies.
Eastern Spotted Skunks are opportunistic feeders and eat a wide variety of animals and plants including rats, mice, rabbits, birds, bird eggs, insects, fruits (grapes, persimmons, etc.,) seeds and carrion. Their small size enables them to squeeze through small openings in pursuit of food, including poultry houses where they are unwelcome by farmers (and especially the poultry.) They’re good “mousers” and considered beneficial in helping control rodents around barns and feed storage buildings.
Spotted skunks breed in March and April but their eggs may not be fertilized for up to two weeks. Males do not participate in rearing of the young. Following a 50-65 day gestation period, two to nine (usually four-six) lightly furred kittens weighing 10 grams or so are born. Their eyes open in about a month, and by 46 days, they can produce their own musk. At three months, they are adult size and reach sexual maturity in 9-10 months. Some females may breed again in July for a second litter of little stinkers.
As with other skunks, Eastern Spotted Skunks are capable of using their powerful fumigating defensive strategy to survive. Unless you just happen to walk right up on one and give it no other choice, they’ll give you some visual clues that you’re too close and had better back off – or else. And they do not favorably respond to “heeeeear, kitty-kitty-kitty-kitty” either. When worse comes to worse, they’ll do a handstand on their forefeet, raise their tail and let you or whatever is agitating them have it. Or, they’ll drop to all fours, bend their body in a “U” shape and direct their derrière and head toward the intended target. A salvo of methyl mercaptan from two glands located just inside their anus can be sprayed accurately 12-20 feet. Musk from the Eastern Spotted Skunk is considered to be more potent than that of other skunk species.
Enemies of Eastern Spotted Skunk’s are great-horned owls, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, man and slow-learning dogs like Jingles. Many meet their fate on our roadways. They’re sort of a good news – bad news little critter, one to respect but also one to appreciate for keeping us on our toes when we’re out poking around in the great outdoors. Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!