Last week I walked into the house and it didn’t smell good. There was a characteristic musky smell just inside my kitchen door, which really worried me. It was the characteristic smell of a skunk. There is no more recognizable pattern and no more infamous method of personal protection in the animal world than that of a skunk. Even children see the black and white picture, photo or fur of the mammal and say “Ewww!” while holding his nose. And while I don’t appreciate it scenting the inside of my house, I do appreciate these stinky creatures for their adaptability and surprisingly docile nature.
There are ten species of skunks in North and South America. (And two closely related stink badgers that reside in the Philippines and Indonesia.) They all belong to the family Mephitidae, which means “stink” as they all have the ability to spray an oily musk from the glands under their tails. One species, the striped skunk, is native to much of Canada, the United States and northern Mexico. This is the only skunk found in our area.
All skunks have a distinctive black and white fur pattern that acts as a warning to potential predators. Striped skunks are mostly black with a white stripe starting at their head, splitting on each side of their back and continuing to their tail. Each individual’s pattern varies. Some sources say it’s as unique to them as our fingerprints are to us.
Due to their intense defense, it’s understandable that skunks have a reputation for being aggressive or fearsome. However, they have a fairly calm nature. Skunks are not large. They are about the size of a domestic cat. They are solitary except when the females are raising their young. And they’re mostly crepuscular, with most of their activity around sunrise and sunset.
I can attest to their docile nature. While camping one summer weekend, my family was sitting around the fire. My youngest cousin saw something moving slowly just outside the firelight. After a few moments, she asked ” Whose is this cat !? We all turned as the skunk waddled around our circle, smelling the ground for fallen food. We divided into two camps: those who sat as still as statues and those who slowly retreated. The skunk didn’t even seem to notice us and eventually moved on, most likely to another campsite.
However, when skunks feel threatened, they may spray. They first give several warnings. Striped skunks may stomp, lift their tail without spraying, or even spray a short mist before committing to a full dose. But when these warning signs are not heeded, they can spray with an accuracy of ten to twelve feet. This spray is a sulfur-based compound similar to what is found in garlic and onions. This spray not only smells but can also irritate the eyes. In high concentrations, it can make humans vomit. But that still can’t deter a hungry predator. Skunks can be eaten by coyotes, foxes and great horned owls.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to see a skunk at a campsite. Striped skunks are found in a variety of habitats, from fields and forests to suburbs and cities. Their success is due to their ability to adapt. As omnivores, they eat a variety of foods ranging from plants to animals. They use their long claws to dig up insects, worms and other invertebrates they find in the ground. Skunks can eat bird and turtle eggs, frogs, salamanders and small mammals. They will also eat fruit and corn. In habitats around humans, compost, birdseed, and trash can also be part of their diet.
So why was there a skunk smell in my kitchen and, upon further exploration, under the kitchen door in the basement? Like many animals, this is the time of year when skunks become active. Striped skunks are not true hibernators, but spend much of the winter dormant in an underground den. Or a den under the porch. While talking with my neighbor, I learned that a skunk, with white stripes so wide that you thought it was albino at first, was tanning on his porch. With longer and warmer days, striped skunks are moving more and looking for mates starting in February. Two to ten babies, called kits, are born from April to June. My back patio, right next to the kitchen door, has a space underneath that would make a perfect temporary den for a skunk. I hope it’s not permanent.
After a few days the smell disappeared. I have since noticed this recognizable smell outside a school, along the road and in the woods. And although it’s not the most pleasant, I consider it another sign of spring.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk, as is Liberty the bald eagle. The Center de la nature is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.