Goshen News, Goshen, IN

April 13, 2014

OUTDOOR COLUMN: All you ever wanted to know about those darned skunks


Goshen News

---- — Skunks are basically a streamlined kitty with a fluid drive. It’s a black kitty with a white stripe down its nose, white on top and back of its head, a white speed-stripe down each side of its back and more white in its tail. It’s the size of a woodchuck and carries its plume-like tail erect like a banner.

That’s the striped skunk, the most common and widespread species. Its range is from the east coast of the U.S. to the west coast, plus northern Mexico and southern Canada. There are three other species of skunk. There’s the spotted, whose range does not include the northeast region of the U.S., nor any part of Canada; and there are the hooded and hognose skunks, which are animals of Mexico, through the range of the hooded skunk and extends into Arizona and New Mexico. The range of the hognose, meanwhile, extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

All skunks have a fluid drive. Many people in the contiguous U.S., perhaps most, know the smell, the stench of a skunk. Some people know that stench from a personal encounter; some from their dog having a personal encounter; and many people know it from a white of a dead skunk they drive past on the side of the road.

Then there are those unfortunate drivers who hit a skunk on the road. My daughter did that a few weeks ago, and the outside of her car, as well as the inside of our garage, still reek.

The scientific name for the striped skunk is “mephitis mephitis.” From the dictionary, mephitis means “a noxious or offensive exhalation arising from substances in the earth; a foul stench.”

Armed with two little packets of liquid stench, one on each side of the anus at the base of its tail; a striped skunk ambles about the countryside, searching for grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, mice, snakes, bird eggs and nestlings. Visiting farms, it also takes chickens and their eggs when the opportunity presents itself.

It moves unhurriedly, except when it pounces on a mouse or large insect. It appears completely unafraid, which is unfortunate sometimes when it crosses a road.

A skunk’s den is a hole in the ground that it digs, a woodchuck’s hole that it appropriates, a hollow log or a crevice among rocks. It will also move into the space beneath a barn or other building, which is often unfortunate for people, dogs and chickens.

A skunk’s den is its sleeping chamber. There, it spends most of its days, though it is not completely nocturnal. It will go rambling occasionally during the day. There, in its den, a skunk also spends much of the winter, sleeping soundly. But it does not hibernate. Its body temperature and functions do not drop or slow greatly during the winter, and it occasionally wakes and goes wandering when snow covers the ground. (I have never heard or read who or how somebody determined that a skunk’s body temperature and functions do not decrease during the winter.)

Mating is in the fall and a female skunk’s den is the place where she gives birth to her young late in the winter or early in spring. A male skunk has nothing to do with the family. He mates, then goes on his way. If he sees his offspring, it’s by accident, in the spring or summer when his path happens to cross theirs as they follow the female, single file, as she teaches them to catch grasshoppers, grubs and mice.

Little skunks must also learn how to use their liquid weapons. To spray, a skunk must stand on its front feet, raise its tail above its back and turn its belly and its spray guns in the direction it wants to spray. A skunk with all four feet on the ground is a stream-lined kitty with a fluid drive that is no threat.