Spring is in the air, and lately I’ve been seeing – and smelling – a surprising number of dead skunks on roads, more than I have in months. Is there a reason, or was it just a coincidence? I did some research, and turns out there is. Just like snowdrops and crocus, skunks on the move are a sign of spring.
Male skunks are loners except at this time of year, when they head out far and wide looking for mates and rivals to fight. Poor eyesight – they can only see about 10 feet – puts them in the path of cars. Mating season is February and March, and females give birth to four to six kits in April and May.
Generally, skunks are nocturnal, although mother skunks will go out in the daytime looking for food. The kits mature in about two months, but stay with mom for about a year. They don’t hibernate in winter, but enter a kind of dormancy and don’t eat much.
Skunks are slow and clumsy, but speed and agility aren’t necessary when you possess the ultimate defense system: The ability to spray your enemy with an overwhelmingly noxious musk called mercaptan, emitted from two glands in the anal area.
But skunks are not aggressive, preferring to avoid trouble. Spraying is a last resort; there’s a finite amount and it can take ten days to produce more. It warns it’s going to spray by hissing, stamping its feet, turning its butt towards the threat and raising its tail. The spray area can extend up to 15 feet. Mother skunks protective of kits and young skunks learning how to control this weapon are the most likely to spray at a provocation.
Skunks eat many types of insects, including pests you don’t want in your garden. They will eat wasps and bees, spiders, grasshoppers, worms, and beetles of all kinds, especially Japanese beetle grubs. A common complaint about skunks is that they rip up lawns looking for grubs. The solution is to treat the grub problem, and the skunks will go elsewhere.
Being omnivores, they will also eat rodents, amphibians, snakes, bird eggs, fruit, and plants. Human- and human-provided food is a favorite: birdseed, pet food, and the food waste that ends up in our trash.
The Latin name for skunk is Mephitis mephitis, which means “noxious vapor.” Native to North and South America, the common name evolved from the Algonquin Indian name for the animal. Skunks are a member of the weasel family.
They have few real predators (great horned owls are one), because coyotes, foxes, and wolves keep their distance. Skunks’ lack of predators, varied diet, and ability to coexist with humans means they are thriving in suburbia, living in burrows, but also under sheds and decks. The biggest threats to skunks are cars and dogs that haven’t learned to steer clear of them.
If you’ve ever had a pet go mano-a-mano with a skunk, you know it’s an experience you don’t want to repeat. Never mind tomato juice: The Humane Society has a handy page on how to deskunk a dog, using a homemade mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dish soap: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/de-skunking-your-dog
Skunks are wild animals. One may scratch or bite if touched or picked up. They can carry rabies, roundworm, and distemper, so always keep your distance.
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