Fuertes sketches of striped skunksThis is the time of year when essence of skunk sometimes reaches my nostrils as I wander over our mountain. That’s because March is prime mating season, and male striped skunks are abroad looking for receptive females.

The females are still holed up in their communal winter dens six feet underground, and sometimes one lucky male has spent the winter with as many as 11 females. In fact, a Pennsylvania den holds the all time record of 18 females.

“He secures rights to this harem,” says Luanne Johnson, who has been studying the striped skunks of Martha’s Vineyard since 2004.

Most males, though, den alone and must go from den to den in search of mates. A female skunk is in heat for only four or five days and those that live alone usually mate with several males. If she is already pregnant, she fights off other males, and she raises her young by herself. Although mating can occur any time between mid-February and mid-April, mid-March is the optimum time in Pennsylvania.

In 63 days, more or less, a female striped skunk will have a litter of 2 to 10 young in a den she has either dug herself with her long-clawed forefeet or in an abandoned woodchuck or fox den she has refurbished. The den can be from 6 to 25 feet long and has one to three chambers 12 to 15 inches in diameter lined with dried leaves and grasses.

Although the pups are born blind, helpless, and hairless, their distinctive black and white pattern is already evident beneath their skins. Even before they can see-on average at 22 days of age-they can emit scent. They are weaned when they are six to eight weeks old and follow their mother single file on her nightly hunting forays. By late summer some disperse, but others stay with their mother until the following spring when they can mate.

The striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, lives in southern Canada from Nova Scotia to British Columbia including the Hudson Bay area, south to Florida, west to California, and into northern Mexico, excluding only corners of the southwest desert where water is scarce. Pennsylvania’s south-central counties of Bedford, Fulton, and Franklin also have a small population of the eastern spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, but, by and large, the striped skunk, also called “lined skunk,” “polecat,” or “wood pussy” is the common skunk species in Pennsylvania.

Recently, based on DNA studies by Dr. Jerry Dragoo of the University of New Mexico, skunks have been removed from the weasel family Mustelid and placed into its own family Mephitidae, which means “noxious odor,” and includes the nine New World skunk species and two Southeast Asia stink badger species.

Dragoo, affectionately referred to as “Skunk Man,” has little or no sense of smell, so as a mephitologist he can easily study and live with skunks. When he wants one for his research, he chases it down, picks it up by its tail, and is liberally sprayed, because, as skunk expert Richard G. Van Gelder discovered back in the 1960s, you can only grab a skunk by the tail and escape being sprayed if you surprise the animal. Otherwise, it is able to evert its anus and expose the nipples from its huge and squishy scent sacs, which are then ready to fire even if you do pick it up by its tail. Dragoo explains on his website, Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations, that the spray is either “emitted as an atomized cloud,” which he calls the “‘shotgun’ approach,” or “as a stream directed at the predator’s face…the ‘.357 magnum’ tactic,” with a range of 10 to 15 feet.

But Dragoo, Luanne Johnson, and Travis Quirk, who is studying striped skunks near Manitoba’s Delta Marsh, agree that skunks are timid animals that would rather run and hide than unleash their ultimate weapon. And a skunk will give plenty of warning-stomping its front feet, arching its tail, chattering its teeth, and shuffling backwards– before facing a predator, rapidly twisting its rear end around, and letting loose.

What it lets loose is a barrage of sulphur compounds called thiols, which cling to the victim and continue to release more bad smells as they slowly react with water from the victim’s body over several days. William Wood, a chemist from Humboldt State University in California, studied skunk “perfume” in 1990 and found that previous analyses of it had missed a couple compounds and misidentified two others. In addition, Wood added three new components and a previously unknown chemical to the mix. Best of all, he devised a way to change the chemistry of the spray and render it odorless. Forget tomato juice. It doesn’t work. Instead, mix one quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, a half cup of baking soda, and a tablespoon of liquid dish soap and apply it to the victim, he advises. Quirt and Johnson say it works.

Baby Skunk
Photo by fieldsbh (Creative Commons)

Both of them are studying the eating habits of striped skunks. In addition to the bad rap they get about their smell, skunks are also accused of eating birds’ eggs and chicks. Quirk is concerned primarily with waterfowl losses due to skunks and Johnson with endangered and threatened shorebirds, specifically piping plovers, least terns, and American oystercatchers. But the researchers agree that omnivorous skunks don’t intentionally target birds’ eggs and chicks.

“They don’t seem to go out and hunt them methodically. They’re just ambling down the beach, and they bump into them and then they’ll eat whatever’s in front of them,” Johnson says.

She adds that neither she nor her field assistants have ever seen a striped skunk kill a chick. Since she has ear-tagged 120 skunks and put radio transmitting collars on 49, which she has continually tracked on their nightly rounds, she should know.

Striped skunks, which find food by using their keen sense of smell and hearing, eat just about anything including garbage and carrion. That’s why they thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including lawns and golf courses where they dig up grubs. But they prefer forest edges, old fields, and brushy farmlands where they do more good than harm, eating an incredible diversity of insects such as beetles, crickets, moths, ants, and grasshoppers, and specializing in such harmful to agriculture insects as bud worms, June beetles, army worms, cut worms, and scarab beetles. They dig up yellow jacket nests and scratch on beehives to entice honeybees outside so they can eat them and are seemingly unperturbed by their stings. They also relish spiders, toads, frogs, snakes, young rabbits, chipmunks, shrews, voles, salamanders, crayfish and earthworms.

Striped skunks roll caterpillars on the ground , especially those of the gypsy moth and other hairy or spiny species before they eat them. They do the same with toads. And when they do stumble on the eggs of ground-nesting birds, they roll them between their hind legs until they break on a rock or other hard object.

“They are accomplished mousers,” Johnson says. “If they find them, they will run them down.”

They also like an array of plant food — blueberries, wild grapes, blackberries, black cherries, raspberries, Virginia creeper, poison ivy and nightshade berries, grasses, nuts, roots, grains, and, at our place in late winter, spilled bird seed.

Striped skunks fatten up before winter and sleep through the coldest weather. But their body temperature only drops from 98 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and they frequently appear during warm spells. Nevertheless, from November to March, females lose from 32 to 55 percent of their weight and males from 15 to 48 percent. In the winter of 2006, Johnson make an unusual discovery while tracking a yearling male. She found him sharing ” the hollowed out base of an old beech tree with a raccoon for several days…I got the signal on my skunk from the spot, but a little raccoon face was staring out at me. ‘Any port in a storm’ as one of my sailing friends likes to say,” she told me.

Photo by cruadinx (Creative Commons)

During the summer striped skunks without young often sleep in different spots every night, according to Johnson, such as underneath shrubs, old boats and decks.

“They’re moving around a lot,” she told a reporter for the Martha Vineyard Times, “and a lot of places kind of function as little skunk motels, where skunks will come and go.”

And that’s when they get into trouble with humans because they will sometimes den under outbuildings or homes. Dragoo, the Skunk Man, spends a lot of time relocating such skunks between May and September. Although they rarely release their scent in their dens, he says, it remains in their feces even after they are removed from an inappropriate place.

Great horned owls and barred owls aren’t bothered by skunk musk and are major predators on striped skunks. Eagles, crows, vultures, coyotes, and bobcats also kill them. But automobiles are their biggest killer along with a wide variety of parasites. They are also major carriers of at least two rabies’ variants. For this reason they don’t make good pets.

But they do make excellent study subjects even though they are nocturnal and the researchers must track them at night. That’s how Quirk became a mephitologist. Another researcher refused to work on skunks because nighttime field work made her claustrophobic so Quirk volunteered instead.

“I’m so sleep-deprived,” Johnson says.

It’s worth it though. She constantly makes new discoveries, for instance, that striped skunks travel farther in one night than researchers suspected. A nursing female she tracked made a full three-and-a half mile round trip in her nightly search for food.

Unlike many researchers, Johnson names her skunks because it makes it easier for her to remember them and because she has found that they have different personalities. One is a snoozer; another is wary, but all of them are cute. Quirk, who raised orphan skunks, calls them “sweethearts.”

And Dragoo? Seven research skunks live at his place. Charlie, Bugbane, Stinky Pete, and Rosebud live outside and Siren, Shadow, and OnRey live inside. None of them have had their scent glands removed. One writer, Mark Wheller, who visited Dragoo, was initially wary of them. But he was won over when he was near Dragoo’s inside skunks.

“Close up, skunks are about as cute as animals get,” he wrote, “right up there with raccoons and bunnies.”

Sketches by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (public domain)

Web-only bonus: Here’s a short video Dave shot of a skunk foraging in the picnic area at Canoe Creek State Park on March 13, 2008.

The Feeders at Night

Every fall, in early November, I hang two bird feeders from our back porch latticework. One is an open, wooden platform feeder that has been batted apart at least three times by black bears and patiently repaired by my husband Bruce. That feeder is now almost 34 years old and has great sentimental value to us. The birds also prefer it to our other feeder that is a sturdy tube reinforced by steel mesh and is, so far, bear proof. Both feeders are filled with oil sunflower seeds.

On the back steps and ground below, I scatter mixed seeds of millet, cracked corn, and sunflower. That setup attracts a diversity of bird species and some mammals too. During the daytime, I’ve watched cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels, chipmunks, eastern meadow voles, deer, opossums, and short-tailed shrews eat seeds. Some, like the voles and shrews, locate their burrow entrances in the midst of the spilled seed and pop in and out of the ground like jack-in-the-boxes.

A ten-foot-tall juniper bush in front of our bay window near the back porch provides cover and nighttime roosting for dozens of birds, particularly dark-eyed juncos. Sometimes, though, a junco is confused by the light shining through the window and flies repeatedly into the glass. That’s what we thought was happening one evening in late November three years ago.

First one junco, then another, repeatedly hit the window. They seemed to be having trouble settling down for the night. Even when we turned off the inside light, the thumps continued.

Finally, our son Dave turned on the porch light. To our surprise, a red phase eastern screech owl, which had been perched on the open, bulkhead door next to the back porch, took off. No wonder the juncos had been jumpy. Screech owls are known predators on songbirds. But since that screech owl had been situated above the seed-strewn ground, we suspected that its intended prey were the rodents that surface to feed throughout the night.

After that experience, we became occasional nighttime watchers of our bird feeding area, especially during a six week winter visit by our then year-and-a-half old granddaughter, Eva, and her parents. She, like her father and two uncles had when they were children, spent much of the daylight hours watching the birds and animals from the back door window.

Our nighttime watching consisted of turning the back porch light on after supper to check for visitors. Usually we saw nothing. But on December 8 there was a southern flying squirrel eating seeds on the back porch. Eva had already been thrilled by gray squirrels during the day, but there is no small mammal more beguiling than a big-eyed, flying squirrel. This one seemed unafraid of the excited little girl and continued eating as we watched.

Three nights later it brought a friend. One sat in the wooden feeder eating seed while the other ate on the back porch itself. Eventually, they climbed to the top of the porch, spread their patagia or gliding membranes, and volplaned into the night. No doubt they had a nest in a nearby tree cavity, and our bird feeding station was one of several stops during their nocturnal search for food.

That was the last we saw of the flying squirrels, although they may have shifted their schedule and fed later in the evening. Since we only checked occasionally between 6:00 and 8:30 p.m. on some evenings we probably missed many late-night visitors.

However, we didn’t miss a return visit from a screech owl on the tenth of January, only this was a gray phase bird. It sat on the roof of the wooden bird feeder while one scared junco flew back and forth under the porch roof. The screech owl seemed supremely uninterested in the songbird. But it gave all of us, including Eva, a good, long look before flying off.

Unfortunately, she was not here last winter when we had almost continual, early evening visitors from November until March, and, because of their distinctive appearances, we knew they were the same animals. It all began as Bruce, Dave, and I sat eating dinner in the kitchen on November 11. Suddenly, there was a loud thump on the back storm door. We rushed to turn on the porch light and were in time to watch an adult raccoon beheading and eating a junco that had been roosting in the latticework above the wooden feeder. The raccoon totally ignored us and tore into the junco as if it were starved, leaving only a few feathers as evidence of its deed.

A week later, at dusk, three young raccoons appeared on the back steps to eat bird seed. Turning on the porch light didn’t deter them. Neither did opening the squeaky, inside door, sitting on a chair, and watching them through the screened storm door. When the telephone rang, they looked up briefly. When I talked to them, they also glanced up and sometimes retreated back down a step or two, but they were soon back and looking in at me as I clicked my tongue at them. Finally, after an hour and twenty minutes and some staring intently into the night, they left.

Young raccoons usually spend the winter in a communal nest with their mother and sometimes other raccoons, as many as 23, in a state of semi-hibernation, having built up a layer of fat to sustain themselves during winter food shortages. Those dens are most often in hollow trees but will also be under tree roots, in rocky crevices, or in remodeled woodchuck, opossum, fox, or skunk dens.

In reality, those raccoons probably lived under the guesthouse along with a skunk, an opossum, and a porcupine, according to Dave. He lives above this mammal condominium and spent the winter listening to the assorted bumps, snarls, screams, and hisses below his bedroom and examining the snow for tracks so he could positively identify his fellow boarders.

Throughout November the triplets, as we called the young raccoons, visited most evenings, but we never saw an adult. Often, though, they would seem to be disturbed by something in the forest and would leave. Sometimes I thought I heard a faint sound. Was their mother warning them off? Had she been the visitor that had beheaded the junco?

Then, on December 2, a young opossum came to the back porch to eat seed. Unlike the triplets, it barely tolerated the porch light. Any sight or sound of us sent it back down the steps with many a backward, hesitant look. Since young opossums only stay with their mothers three months, this one was on its own. Although opossums don’t hibernate, they are relatively inactive in late autumn and winter, staying in nests of grass and leaves, or so the experts say. Because they are southern animals and have a difficult time if the temperature dips below 19 degrees Fahrenheit, opossums that live through a northern winter usually have deformed ears, and even tails, because of frostbite.

This opossum seemed to time its arrival before or after the triplets’ visit. On December 4 the triplets came shortly after dusk and the opossum at 8:30 p.m. The next evening the triplets came in at 8:15, staying until our bedtime. Then, for most of December, the opossun arrived around 6:30 p.m., ate its fill, and left. As soon as it was gone, at 8:00 p.m., the triplets appeared. By morning all the seeds on the steps and ground were gone.

Raccoons are known to be peaceable creatures with no sense of territoriality. Virginia Holmgren, who actively fed raccoons all year long from 1960 until 1981, observed 145 young and their mothers, and claimed, in her charming book, Raccoons, that her raccoons fed peacefully with opossums whenever they appeared.

We had to wait until the following March 3 to see how raccoons and opossums interacted. That evening Bruce and I were busy in the front yard watching the moons of Jupiter, the Orion nebulae, and the Pleiades star cluster through our new birding scope. All the while we were admiring the incomprehensible universe in the front yard, a raccoon and opossum, at opposite ends of the feeder area, were filling their bellies. No aggression there, but I did see aggression between the triplets on December 14. Two of them pushed the third one off the steps, but it didn’t protest. It merely fed quietly on the ground below its siblings.

On the evening that autumn became winter, the triplets appeared for what we thought was the last time. But the opossum continued visiting throughout the winter months even though its coat looked too thin to get it through the cold. In places its skin showed through like a balding old man with a few strands of gray hair plastered carefully over his head. We didn’t always see the opossum, but, unlike raccoons, which never defecate in their feeding area, it left a pile of its scat on the porch and steps every night.

During the cold weeks of early January, when the temperature dipped into the single digits, the opossum continued to visit. By January 18, it ate as if half-starved and no longer reacted either to the porch light or my comments to it. The thermometer registered a mere seven degrees Fahrenheit, proving that opossums can not only survive temperatures below 19 degrees but move around and feed in the bitter cold.

Then, on the morning of February sixth, I went outside while it was still dark to retrieve the bird feeder containers from the back porch. An animal rushed away, using mincing steps that reminded me of a Chinese woman with bound feet, a white fur clinging fashionably to her back. But it was a striped skunk, its tail streaming out straight behind it as if it wouldn’t think of threatening anyone on its home ground, which seemed to be under our front porch.

I caught no whiff of skunk, and when I returned from our basement, where I store our birdseed safe, I turned on the porch light and cautiously looked outside. The skunk was back, eating seeds on the cement pad in front of the bulkhead door, its white, muff-like back and tail gusting in the breeze. It ate as if starved and only retreated when the first birds appeared in the dim, predawn light. Like the skunk Bruce had photographed at our feeders the previous March, it had a white back, sides, and tail, a black belly, and a black face divided by a single, longitudinal white nose stripe.

Although skunks will eat seeds, their principal winter foods are mice, voles, and shrews. I wondered if the skunk was more interested in eating the creatures that ate our seeds. Skunks, like raccoons, also build up fat before winter so they can snooze through fierce winter weather. But they do get out and forage on milder days and, as I discovered, on cold (23 degrees) nights as well.

Skunks, too, usually nest communally in a single den (as many as 15), so I wondered if there was more than one in the den under our front porch and what relation it had to any living under the guesthouse.

“A raccoon,” Holmgren writes, “might snarl at another raccoon poaching on its corner of the bowl, but not at a skunk. The smaller animal had a right that…raccoons were too smart to defy.” On March 2 we had a chance to test her statement. I switched on the porch light at 8:30 p.m. and found that not only were the triplets back, but so was the skunk. The raccoons moved menacingly toward it as it tried to feed on the steps. Instantly its tail shot up, it stamped its front foot, and then turned away.

I held my breath. But instead of spraying, the white skunk made a dignified retreat, its tail still high in the air. I couldn’t decide whether the raccoons were intimidated by the skunk’s threat of its ultimate weapon, but when it quietly returned a few minutes, later, its tail was down and it fed peacefully off to the side of the raccoons just above the bulkhead door. They were still eating harmoniously when I went upstairs to take my shower. Later, when I opened my bedroom windows, there was not even a faint whiff of skunk.

That was the last we saw of the skunk and the triplets, but the opossum appeared once more shortly after dark on March 19. It scarfed up birdseed like a vacuum cleaner. Clearly it was very hungry, as most mammals are by March.

I could only hope that those creatures that had made our night time feeder watching entertaining throughout the winter survived the harshest winter month of all.