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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog
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Animal of the Week: Striped Skunk


There are few animals in the woods that have as bad a reputation as this week's "animal of the week." The striped skunk, which is found in Illinois and much of the United States, has a terrible reputation; and if you corner a skunk, that reputation is well earned. But there is much more to skunks than their stink.

The striped skunk is one of the most easily identifiable animals that you might come across in the woods. They are primarily black with white markings. Though the markings are slightly different from each other, they follow a few general rules. A white stripe is present running up the center of the face. A white patch is present at the nape of the neck and two white stripes extend down the back. The stripes on the back can be either thick or thin. The tail is bushy and the hairs are white tipped. The striped skunk is about the size of a house cat. The striped skunk has five toes and claws on each paw. The skunk's tracks have distinct claw marks for the front; the back, however, have light imprints unless they are in particularly soft ground or snow.

Skunks can be found in almost any type of habitat, though they prefer to be in grassy, brushy or forest edges. They are found in the highly fragmented habitats produced by agriculture, and are at home in the wood lots, forest edges, and fence rows. Striped skunks are omnivorous and will eat what is seasonally available. During the spring, summer, and fall, they tend to specialize in insects and other invertebrates. Their diets include earthworms, beetles, insect larva, and crayfish when available. When their preferred foods are not available, they will also hunt small rodents, snakes, lizards, amphibians, and will eat eggs of ground nesting birds, as well.

Skunks have one litter per year. They mate in February and March. The mother skunk is the only one that will care for the young as no pair bonds are formed. The young are born in a den and weaned in six to eight weeks, at which point the skunk kits follow their mother around in a single file line.

The trademark stench is a defensive method, and an adult skunk can accurately aim the spry at an intended target. The spray, in addition to the stink, can cause nausea, intense burning, and temporary blindness if it enters the eyes. The skunk will warn its would-be attacker by beating the ground, hissing, and clicking its teeth. If this fails, it will arch its back and spray moving its rump to spray a larger area. The spray reaches about 10 feet from the skunk, more if the wind is blowing. Skunk kits are able to produce the spray soon after birth, but cannot aim the spray. Skunks have few natural predators, however, few kits make it to adulthood. The leading causes of death in skunks are disease and automobiles.

Fun Skunk Facts:

  1. The skunk's scientific name, Mephitis mephitis, comes from the Latin root mephit, which means bad odor.
  2. When a skunk sprays, the smell can be detected as far as 1.5 miles downwind.
  3. A skunk puts on fat throughout the summer and can lose as much as half of its body weight over the winter.

Resources:

Field Manual of Illinois Mammals-Joyce E Hofmann.



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