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February 16, 2018

ART LANDER'S OUTDOORS:

Driving rural backroads or busy highways through wooded suburbs, motorists are likely to see skunk carcasses in the road this time of year.

The reason is simple — it’s mating season, and skunks, particularly males, are roaming around in search of mates. The nocturnal mammals aren’t that fast or agile and have predominately black fur, so they get run over unintentionally on dark roadways. Motorists beware!

The skunk most common in Kentucky is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), a native species that by the late Pleistocene geologic time period, 70,000 to 14,500 years ago, was widely distributed throughout the southern United States. Today, the striped skunk is found in all Lower 48 states, southern Canada and northern Mexico.

There are 13 subspecies of the striped skunk. Their common name in the rural South is polecat.


The skunk most common in Kentucky is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), a native species that is found in all Lower 48 states, southern Canada and northern Mexico. There are 13 subspecies of the striped skunk. Their common name in the rural South is polecat. (Photo by by Wallace Keck)

The skunk most common in Kentucky is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), a native species that is found in all Lower 48 states, southern Canada and northern Mexico. There are 13 subspecies of the striped skunk. Their common name in the rural South is polecat. (Photo by by Wallace Keck)The skunk most common in Kentucky is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), a native species that is found in all Lower 48 states, southern Canada and northern Mexico. There are 13 subspecies of the striped skunk. Their common name in the rural South is polecat. (Photo by by Wallace Keck)Description

The medium-sized, 20 to 30 inch mammal, has a stout build, with short legs, a small, conical head and a long, heavily-furred tail.

Adult males are 10 percent larger than females. Body weights range from four to nine pounds, though some robust males may tip the scales at up to 12 pounds.

Their back feet are flat, with bare soles. Their forefeet are armed with five long, curved claws adapted for digging.

The color patterns of the fur can vary greatly, but generally consist of a black base with a white stripe extending from the head which divides along the shoulders, continuing along the flanks to the rump and tail. Brown or cream-colored mutations occasionally occur.

Habitat

Striped skunks are found in a variety of habitats, but prefer forest borders and brushy fields, near a pond, lake or stream.

They often sleep above ground during warmer weather, but dig dens below ground at the onset of cold weather. When the opportunity presents itself, striped skunks will also use dens abandoned by other animals.

Females with unweaned kits make use of underground dens in spring and early summer. In cultivated areas, striped skunks will often dig their dens in fencerows, where they are less likely to be disturbed by machinery or livestock.

In winter it is common for a single den to be occupied by multiple females and a single male. During severe cold the striped skunk saves its energy by lowering its body temperature, and depends primarily on its fat reserves to survive.

Their preference for semi-open lands puts them in contact with their only significant predator, large birds of prey, such as the Great Horned Owl. Foxes, bobcats and coyotes usually avoid striped skunks, but will kill and eat them when starving.


Striped skunks often sleep above ground during warmer weather, but dig dens below ground at the onset of cold weather. Females with unweaned kits make use of underground dens in spring and early summer. (Photo provided)

Striped skunks often sleep above ground during warmer weather, but dig dens below ground at the onset of cold weather. Females with unweaned kits make use of underground dens in spring and early summer. (Photo provided)Striped skunks often sleep above ground during warmer weather, but dig dens below ground at the onset of cold weather. Females with unweaned kits make use of underground dens in spring and early summer. (Photo provided)Food Habits

Striped skunks are omnivores, feeding on a variety of plant and animal matter.

Primarily an insectivore, the striped skunk most frequently consumes grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, and caterpillars. In the winter and spring months, the striped skunk will supplement its diet with vertebrates such as mice and voles.

They are also known to eat the chicks and eggs of ground-nesting birds, including wild turkeys. They are nocturnal, but start hunting in late afternoon.

Scent Glands

Like all skunks, the striped skunk possesses two highly developed scent glands, one on each side of their anus.

The oily, yellow-colored scent that they can spray at a considerable distance, consists of a mixture of thiols, odorous compounds that resemble the smell of garlic or rotten eggs, only worse.

Dog owners beware!

If the family dog has a run-in with a skunk, it’s no laughing matter. That unmistakable, musky odor will take your breath away.

Dogs can get sprayed by skunks year-round, but late winter to spring seems to offer dogs more opportunities to get in trouble. Skunk activity picks up in February when males start wandering in search of mates, and skunk populations are highest in the spring after baby skunks are born.

Both commercial preparations and home remedies are used with varying success to try to defeat the powerful smell. But, in the end, it’s time that heals all. The offensive odor eventually goes away, wearing off on its own.

The key to cutting the smell to tolerable levels is neutralizing the spray’s pH. Skunk spray is alkaline, high on the pH scale, so that’s why home remedies are acidic.

The gestation period for striped skunks lasts around 59 to 77 days, with kits being born at about mid-May to early June. The eyes open after around three weeks, and are weaned after 42 to 56 days. (Photo provided)The gestation period for striped skunks lasts around 59 to 77 days, with kits being born at about mid-May to early June. The eyes open after around three weeks, and are weaned after 42 to 56 days. (Photo provided)Home remedies include tomato juice, milk, and cider vinegar. Tomato juice and vinegar contain acetic acid, and milk contains lactic acid.

De-skunking a dog takes lots of scrubbing and a steady flow of clean water from the garden hose. This means working outside. If done right, it’s a two person job and everyone is going to get wet.

First thoroughly soap the dog, using a concentrated dish soap like Dawn Ultra, then rinse with the garden hose.

Cider vinegar is perhaps the best choice of the home remedies. It’s less expensive than milk and isn’t as messy to apply as tomato juice.

Rinse the dog several times, mixing about 1 1⁄2 cups of vinegar in about two gallons of warm water. Pour or spray the solution all over the dog and thoroughly rub it into its fur.

Another effective home remedy is a mixture of one quart of hydrogen peroxide with 1/4 cup baking soda and one teaspoon of dish soap. A third option is to mix a 16-ounce bottle of hydrogen peroxide with a large can of tomato juice and a teaspoon of dish soap.

Whatever remedy, it’s going to take several applications to make an impact on the foul scent.

Skunk Breeding and Reproduction

Striped skunks are polygamous and they breed once a year, though yearling females who have failed to mate may enter a second estrous cycle a month after the first.

The mating season starts in mid-February and continues through mid-April.

A single male may have a harem of females, which he mates with and defends against other males for a period of about 35 days. Once the mating period has finished, the impregnated females confine themselves to their dens, while the males attempt to rebuild their fat reserves.

The gestation period lasts around 59 to 77 days, with kits being born at about mid-May to early June.

Litters generally consist of 2 to 12 kits, born blind and sparsely furred, weighing 25 to 40 grams. The eyes open after around three weeks, and are weaned after 42 to 56 days. At this point, the kits may accompany their mother outside the den, becoming independent after about three months.

It’s that time of the year — skunk mating season. Motorists and dog owners beware! It’s a stinky proposition.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

 

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