Spring Means Romance for Skunks
by Ro Wauer
While driving from Mission Valley to town this week, I discovered four skunk road-kills along that 15-mile stretch. The same drive during most of the year produces very, very few road-killed skunks, although an occasional raccoon or cottontail can be expected. But it is the time of year when our striped skunks are out looking for mates. And apparently, the hot-blooded males pay little head to traffic when crossing the roadways. Also, perhaps, because of their behavior of standing their ground and relying on their nauseous fluid for protection rather than running away.
Striped skunks are normally shy creatures that venture out of their dens only during the nighttime to search for food. But their diet can include a vast array of prey, ranging from insects such as grasshoppers and beetles, various snakes and amphibians, to small rodents, such as mice and rats, to crabs, and an occasional bird and their eggs. They also feed on various fruits. Although skunks usually are good neighbors, they occasionally invade chicken coops when hungry or trying to feed a litter.
The striped skunk is easily identified by its black body with a narrow white striped that runs from the top of its head backward along its back, like an elongated V. About the size of a 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.
Three skunk species occur in South Texas: the fairly common striped skunk and the very rare spotted and hognose skunks. The spotted skunk is the smallest of the three and can be identified by numerous white markings, while the hognose skunk, about the same size as the striped skunk, has an all black back and tail and a longer snout.
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. 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, oily 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 jet may travel 12 feet, and the powerful scent may be detected miles away during favorable weather. Also, the scent from droplets that touch immediate objects, animals, plant or trap, can remain for weeks.
Skunks normally live a solitary existence, only pairing up during their spring breeding season. Their gestation period lasts for 42 to 63 days. The litter of four to ten young is born blind and finely haired. The youngsters open their eyes in about 21 days, and they are weaned in six to seven weeks and taken on hunting trips by the mother during the end of that period.
Skunks are carnivores that belong to the Mustelidae Family, along with various weasels and the badger, wolverine, ferret, and otters. All possess scent glands, but only the skunks are able to spray their obnoxious fluid any distance.