by Whit Gibbons

February 19, 2017

Skunk mating season has begun. The evidence will soon be apparent in the nighttime air on roads where someone has run over a skunk. The peak of mating season for these iconic animals is during February and March.

A sign that mating season has begun for many animals, especially medium- to large-size mammals, is an uptick in roadkills. One reason is that males begin searching for females with the onset of the reproductive season.

Males are likely to travel longer and farther to find a mate than are females. Unfortunately, in most of the country, any animal traveling overland for miles during a period of weeks will encounter highways. No species’ evolutionary history has prepared it to deal with motor vehicles.

As a result of the skunk’s invulnerability against most predators because of its chemical warfare capabilities, skunks are not adapted to flee – an invaluable skill when dealing with an oncoming car. Cougars, coyotes and foxes are known to be successful predators on skunks, although unsuccessful attempts no doubt occur because of the skunk’s special weaponry.

Great horned owls, which don’t have a sense of smell, will also attack skunks. When a skunk gets hit by a vehicle, even if it is killed immediately, a sure byproduct is the foul-smelling musk that is released from its anal glands.

In addition to road-killed skunks by the side of the highway and musk-anointed cars and trucks during late winter and early spring, other indicators of increased skunk activity will become apparent.

I heard recently of an encounter between a dog and a skunk in a local neighborhood. The outcome was predictable. The dog and its owner were the losers.

I have also heard of a request to remove a skunk from under someone’s house. Skunks are definitely on the move, seeking out mates and being intolerant of other animals, like dogs, that might want to impede their progress.

Skunks belong to the family Mustelidae, which has many well-known species with foul-smelling musk glands. Some of the superstars in the family that most people know about but few have ever seen are wolverines, badgers and weasels. Otters and mink are also members of the family.

The striped skunk, which ranges from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada to Mexico, is the most widespread of the four kinds of skunks native to the United States and the one with which most people are familiar.

The classic color pattern of the striped skunk with its black body and two white stripes that start as a V-shape at the head can be highly variable. Sometimes the stripes are broad and sometimes narrow. I have even seen a skunk that was almost all white and another that was almost all black.

Two kinds, the hooded skunk, which is most closely related to the striped skunk, and the hognose skunk are found in the U.S. Southwest and in Mexico.

A seldom-seen skunk of the Southeast is the spotted skunk, which is small in comparison to the others. If any skunk can be called cute, this is it. Even when they spray musk at a predator or person, they are little acrobats. They do a handstand and walk around on their front feet while taking aim.

Striped skunks can direct their musky spray up to 20 feet. But a person can usually tell when a skunk is preparing to spray because it looks at you, raises its tail and then aims. It just wants to get away, so if you back off (30 feet is a good idea), it typically will turn and amble away.

Skunk spray is as bad as you have ever heard. I have seen colleagues temporarily blinded when sprayed in the face, and the smell can persist for days. And forget about ever again wearing the clothes you had on. Skunks are cool animals to see and watch from a distance, but they are not to be trifled with.

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