The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Skunks Are on the Trail of Romance in Spring
by Ro Wauer

In spring, like so many other critters, including humans, skunks turn their attention to love. They begin to wander about in search of that one true love of their life or, more truthfully for skunks, their annual affair.

Skunks normally live a solitary existence, only pairing up during the spring breeding season. Consequently, they are far more likely to meet their demise from high-speed vehicles in early spring, usually in February or March, when are searching for a mate, than at any other time of the year.

Our South Texas area has three species of skunks: eastern spotted, hognose, and striped, but only the striped skunk is reported regularly. The smaller less common eastern spotted skunk, identified by numerous white markings, is far more secretive and is rarely seen. It is found throughout eastern and northern Texas, while the very similar western spotted skunk occurs primarily in the Trans-Pecos and a portion of the Hill Country, and westward to the Pacific Coast. The larger hognosed skunk, with a longer snout and an all-white back and tail, is more numerous to the south and west, and is only rarely reported in the Coastal Bend. There is a fifth skunk species in Texas, the hooded skunk, which occurs only the Big Bend region.

The striped skunk is easily identified by its black body and narrow white stripes that runs from the top of its head backward along its back, like an elongated V. About the size of a large house cat, striped skunks can appear almost anywhere, from our fields and woodlands to even our residential areas. Nocturnal in behavior and rarely encountered, they are more often detected by scent than they are seen.

All skunks possess scent glands with an obnoxious odor that they can spray at an antagonist when disturbed. When hit by a vehicle, they usually will spray automatically. Although it may seem that the typical skunk odor is commonplace, they spray only as a last resort. The scent 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 just 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 then be detected miles away during favorable weather.

Skunks are omnivorous, feeding on practically any animal they can find that is small enough to capture. Insects may constitute from 50 to 90 percent of their diet, but snakes, frogs and even freshwater clams that are often dug for in loose sand, are utilized. Skunks also love bird eggs and babies. And their few enemies consist of humans, large dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and great horned owls. Few nighttime predators are large enough and aggressive enough to kill a skunk. The skunk’s powerful defense immunizes them effectively from most potential enemies.

Until recently skunks belonged to only a subfamily of carnivores, along with dogs, cats, raccoons, badgers, weasels, and bears. But, according to David Schmidly's revised book, The Mammals of Texas (Univ. Texas Pres, 1994), they were raised to the family level Mephitidae, based on molecular studies and their truly unique behavior.


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