You’ll smell these critters long before you see them

July 14, 2013 

Your neighbor stinks. That is, your wild neighbor of the fluffy-tailed, black-and-white variety. But for good reason.

Dressed in their black fur coats with white “V” stripes, skunks are one of the most familiar and recognizable mammals around. But, they are also one of the most misunderstood and amazing creatures to share our habitat.

Since they are nocturnal, mostly going about their business at night, you might never have seen a skunk in action. So here is a peek inside their secretive lives.

SNIFFING FOR FOOD

Washington hosts the small spotted skunk and the larger, better-known striped skunk. Having adjusted well to life near humans, skunks make themselves right at home in our neighborhoods, along with many other spaces, such as forests, grassy fields and farms. While we are busy at work, school and home, skunks sleep — safely tucked into burrows, hollow logs or sometimes holes beneath a porch.

Maybe it’s a body odor thing, but these house cat-sized animals tend to be loners, except for moms with little ones. Skunks emerge after dark to wander through the woods, neighborhoods and fields in search of food. Though their eyesight is not the best, they have sensitive noses and sniff for all manner of tasty delights. Long, curved claws and slight webbing between their toes give skunks shovel feet. With these tools on their strong front legs, they easily dig up grubs, moles, voles and other garden pests.

Skunks are not picky eaters. They will gobble up insects, slugs, bird eggs, fruits, buds, grasses, crayfish, rodents and almost anything else they can find, including road kill. This may explain why they sometimes have their own unfortunate encounters with cars.

Insects, however, are their favorite go-to snack, making up approximately 70 percent of their diet. “Show no fear” seems to be their motto when it comes to hunting buggy treats. Striped skunks are known to dig into bee hives, causing a cloud of bees to fly out in defense. Then, the skunk smacks the angry buzzers right out of the air for a meal.

THE SMELLY DETAILS

While pets might find out the hard way, most of us know to stay clear of a skunk’s backside. There, two walnut-sized glands are loaded with an oily, yellow liquid called musk. Many animals use musk to mark their territory or talk to each other. But, skunks have adapted theirs into a super-stink weapon.

A predator that tries to sneak up on an unsuspecting skunk will get a nasty surprise. Skunks can accurately spray a mist cloud up to 12 feet away or squirt a smelly stream like a water gun into their attacker’s face. Even a few drops of musk hold a big odor and skunks are able to spray five to eight times before they run out of liquid. Then, it takes them about a week to reload.

How can these animals aim so well backwards? Striped skunks face their attacker as much as possible, and bend their bodies into a ‘u’ shape in order to see and spray.

But, a shy skunk would much rather avoid trouble than jump into a stink battle. A skunk gives other animals fair warning if they come too close, showing off the striped fur and stomping their front feet on the ground. Most predators take the hint and move on. The skunk is out of luck, however, if its attacker is immune to odor. Since great horned owls have almost no sense of smell, they don’t mind a skunk dinner one bit.

LITTLE STINKERS

If they can avoid owls, desperate coyotes and other big predators, skunks den up and have their babies in late spring. Skunk moms line their burrows with grasses and usually give birth to four or five babies. Born blind and hairless, their stripes are already visible. Mom protects her young for up to a year. The little stinkers do have their own defenses, though. They are able to spray as early as 8 days old.

Before resorting to spraying, young striped skunks and adult spotted skunks will climb trees to find safety. Young skunks make hissing sounds, chirpy growls and screams if cornered. They need these strategies and more to survive life in the wild. Although skunks can live to the age of 15 years in human care, their wild lifespan is typically only two to three years. So, consider yourself lucky if you cross paths with an old stinker!

MAKE A SCENT JOURNAL

Try out your own super smeller.

Bring a camera and notebook when you venture out into different kinds of natural spaces, such as parks, beaches and forest trails. As you explore, use descriptive words to write about what you find.

Are there sweet-smelling flowers nearby? How about clean, crisp-smelling pine needles? What do you smell at the beach? How are these smells different from things you smell in the city or in your home?

Scientists who study the human brain tell us that fragrances are strongly linked to our memories. If you take pictures, add your smelly descriptions to your photos for an extra-memorable record of your adventures.

Learn More about skunks

More stink facts: Skunks are part of the Mephitidae family, named after the Latin word for “bad odor.” According to William Wood of Humboldt State University, skunk musk contains the same kind of sulfur-based compound found in garlic and onions. Like onion mist, skunk mist burns if it gets in a predator’s eyes.

Striped skunks are the size of a domestic cat, ranging in length from 22-32 inches, including its tail.

Spotted skunks, also known as civet cats,are 14-18 inches long.

See a skunk: To safely see a live skunk in daylight, visit Thurston the striped skunk at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater live animal show this summer at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Learn more at pdza.org.

Information: For more information about skunks, visit your local library and these websites:

animals.nationalgeographic.com/ animals/mammals/skunk

wdfw.wa.gov/living/skunks.html

biokids.umich.edu/critters/ Mephitis_mephitis

pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/is-that-skunk/video-skunk-spray-chemistry/4553

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