Thursday, February 14, 2013

For the Love of Skunks!

Skunk love is in the air on this Valentine's Day. Literally! Have you noticed an increase in these odiferous creatures this time of year? That's because it's breeding season for skunks in Ohio in late February.

The common Striped Skunk
The striped skunk is the only native skunk found in Ohio. Found throughout most of North America, it is one of four species of skunks on this continent. They include the more southern spotted skunk, and the southwestern hooded and hog-nosed skunks.  All are members of the Mephitidae family, which is Latin for "stench."  All skunks have a gland around their anus that is capable of projecting a foul-smelling secretion up to 15 feet.  This defense mechanism, while rarely used, is what makes the skunk an unlikely prey for most predators.  Animals remember the bold black and white stripes and learn from experience to stay away.  The exception is the great horned owl.  Since owls have little to no sense of smell, they could care less about getting sprayed.  Just ask the unfortunate grad student who has to conduct nest surveys on great horned owls.

Skunks are not true hibernators.  They do, however, take a lot of really long naps.  They will store up body fat for the winter and, when the weather is bad, will take to their dens for weeks to a month at a time.  By the time February rolls around, they are ready to roam about looking for love.  Skunks are omnivores and will eat just about anything they come across.  However, they have pretty poor eyesight.  You might notice an increase in road kill skunks this time of year as they are out wandering around looking for food and a mate. And, like our friend Pepe Le Pew, the males are promiscuous, mating with several females during the season.  Gestation is approximately two months and the females give birth to litters of 2-10 young.  They are born hairless and with eyes closed and remain in the den for about 6 weeks.  They are weaned at 6 weeks and begin to join their mother on her nightly ramblings.

This famous "Looney Tunes" skunk was always looking for love in the wrong places.
This famous "Looney Tunes" skunk was always looking for love in all the wrong places.
Striped skunks are very adaptable and can become habituated to humans and their trash, pet food, and other sources of food.  In particular, they love our nicely manicured lawns, which tend to be full of grubs in the spring.  If you notice some morning that your lawn looks like someone went over it with a spade, you've probably had a visit from a family of skunks in the night.  They use their long claws and heavily padded feet to tear up your sod and eat the grubs of Japanese beetles and other yard bugs.  While you can probably appreciate the reduction of the grubs, it doesn't look pretty.  There's not much we can do about it except to let them pass on by.  After all, would you want to try to persuade a skunk to leave?

For more information about Ohio's striped skunk, and other Ohio mammals, check out our A to Z Species Guide.  And Happy Valentine's Day!

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