Skunks may not be the first animal that pops into your mind for backyard wildlife, but they are common visitors to many yards. Because they are active at dusk and during the night, they often go unobserved. Despite their infamous defense mechanism, they don’t have a very strong smell unless they’ve been provoked.
We have two species of skunks in Kentucky – the spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius) and the much more common striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). Striped skunks are widespread and can actually be found throughout much of the U.S. The striped skunk is the one that is most often portrayed in cartoons and photographs. Skunks are members of the mustelid family, along with weasels, mink, and otters.
Skunks are omnivores and eat a wide variety of foods. Insect grubs are some of their favorite foods and they will dig up a grub infested yard as they pursue one of their favorite foods. However, their efforts to rid a yard of pesky grubs is rarely appreciated by those who like perfectly manicured lawns. Beekeepers also know that skunks can be hive predators and will stand at the front of the hive eating bees as they come out and trying to get at the brood located inside the hive. In addition to different types of insects, skunks will also eat fruit, berries, and the eggs of ground nesting birds. When a skunk finds an egg, it will bite off the end of the egg and eat the contents, leaving the rest of the shell intact, making it easy to identify skunk nest predation.
In the wild, skunks are most often found near the edges of woods and fields. They will either dig a den or take over an abandoned den that was dug by a coyote, woodchuck, or fox. Skunks have even been known to den up in a shallow cave or under a brush pile. They are very adaptable and have also taken to urban and suburban life where they can be found living under porches, in open crawl spaces, in culverts, and in other similar locations.
Skunks typically live by themselves, unless it is a female with her young. However, in the winter, several skunks may share the same den, presumably for warmth. There have even been reports of other animals such as rabbits and woodchucks being found in different “rooms” of a larger den used by skunks during the winter. Skunks don’t hibernate, but instead will go into short states of deep sleep called torpor during the coldest days of the winter. In Kentucky, these states of torpor rarely last more than a couple of days in a row, simply because we don’t stay below freezing for very long at any one time. During the rest of the winter, they are active and doing “skunk things” every night.
Female skunks go into heat in February and the males become much more active as they search for receptive females. Males roaming around looking for females is why the scent of skunk along the roads becomes so much more common at this time of year. It’s the same reason why so many deer are hit in the late fall during rut. Young skunks are typically born in May and will be weaned in a couple of months.
Although coyotes and bobcats will occasionally prey on skunks, they tend to leave skunks alone. The most common predator of skunks is the great-horned owl. Great-horned owls, like most other birds, don’t have a good sense of smell. The skunk’s primary defense weapon, therefore, is useless against owls and other birds of prey.
The infamous smell of skunks is produced by two scent glands. The scent glands are attached to two nipples that the skunk can use to aim its spray. A skunk can accurately project its spray 10-15 feet on a calm day. However, even with the effectiveness of its spray at detouring perceived threats, skunks will only spray as a last resort. A skunk will often go through an elaborate display of stamping its feet, raising its tail, and hunching its back to try to scare of the would-be attacker. However, if that doesn’t work and the skunk bends so both its head and raised tail are pointed in the same direction, then watch out!
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology. All of Shannon’s Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blogs can be found at https://shannontrimboli.com/posts/blog/.
Backyard Ecology: Creating Space for Pollinators and Wildlife
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I started Backyard Ecology as a way to share my love of exploring nature and learning about different plants and animals. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.