VERMONT. SEPTEMBER 1, 2009. It was a surprise, walking out of the home office in mid-June to find a black and white fur ball, small enough to fit into a coffee cup staring up from the edge of the back porch. The next day there were two. Each day more appeared until it was clear that seven kits had set up residence under the back porch. The ongoing presence of these kit skunks was the prompt to learn more about these cute little stinkers. And of course the first question was, Can young skunks spray? The answer is yes after about 2 weeks from birth. The mother was never seen and presumed dead as these kits were emaciated, a situation that was dealt with with peanut butter.
The scientific name for spotted and striped skunks is Mephitis mephitis. The Greek word means pestilent or bad odor. If you think about the name, the repeat of the Latin word mephitis in the skunks’ taxonomic name catches the essence of the animal, stink squared and that is certainly a fitting descriptor. Their musk which can be sprayed from two glands controlled by the sphincter muscles for a distance of up to 10 feet and aimed left to right in an arch of 30 degrees is a sulphur compound known as butylmercaptan. Not only does it stink but it can burn locally usually causing no permanent damage even if sprayed in the eyes. The U shaped position skunks take at release has both ends of the skunk facing its adversary and it scents quickly once in position.
Until the mid-1990s the skunk was the most disliked member of the weasel family. Then two researches proved that the skunk genetically was in a family of its own. We should have known that skunks were unique. The weasel family name is Mustelidae while the skunk family name now is Mephitidae. Both names mean stinkers in Latin but skunks are now recognized as a separate species.
Regardless of the classification, they are still disliked but even that should be rethought. Their diet is a boon to humans. They are omnivorous and eat grubs to berries to snakes and small mammals like mice, rats, moles and shrews. They are known to eat enormous amounts of army worms, cut worms, potato beetles and other bugs that are harmful to agriculture and your garden. Their fore paws are exactly designed to dig up these grubs and even the kits were good at it despite no mother to train them.
Skunks possess a strong sense of smell but poor eyesight. The usual locomotion of a skunk is to be wandering seemingly aimlessly with its head down. It smells for grubs. One feeding trick skunks use is to propel an egg with their front feet through their back legs against a hard object, once cracked open they consume it at their leisure. And although a meandering gate is their usual approach to moving and feeding, they have been observed pouncing on prey. As with all animals skunks can swim but prefer dry land.
Guns and automobiles kill more skunks then any of their other predators but most carnivores and birds of prey will eat skunks, but they need to be close to starvation before they will do so. A major concern for mortality in skunks is rabies. During the skunks mating both male and female skunks bite each other providing the transmission route for rabies between them. Skunks serve as a reservoir for the rabies virus passing it along to other wildlife. In response to the rabies epidemic in the 1980 and 90s several states required any caught skunk found to be euthanized and the head sent to their health department for testing. That is still the case in Vermont.
There are 13 subspecies of the skunk in North America. Their range stretches from northern Canada to northern Mexico through all the lower 48 United States except dry areas in the desert southwest. They den in the winter but do not hibernate. They go into a prolonged sleeping state but their metabolic rate does not decline as with animals that truly hibernate. They are not social animals but will den during winter together in groups that include male and female adults and young of different ages and litters.
The young are usually born by mid-May in our watershed so these kits were late into the world. Of the 7 kits in this litter, one died of unidentified causes while they were all still around the house. Within 6 weeks they had all dispersed to parts unknown. Access to under the porch will be fenced off in September well before they may decide to return and den there for winter.
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David Deen is River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC has been an articulate voice for the Connecticut River for more than half a century.