By Katie Finch

Last week, I walked into the house and it did not smell good. There was a distinctive musky odor just inside my kitchen door, that caused me a great deal of concern. It was the unmistakable smell of a skunk. There is no more pattern more recognizable and no personal protection method more infamous in the animal world than a skunk’s. Even kids see the black and white mammal’s picture, photo or fur and say “Ewww!” while holding their nose. And while I didn’t appreciate it perfuming the inside of my house, I do appreciate these stinky creatures for their adaptability and surprising docile nature.

Photo by Dan and Lin Dzurisin

There are ten species of skunk in North and South America. (And two closely related Stink Badgers that reside in the Philippines and Indonesia.) They are all in the Mephitidae family, meaning “stink” because they all have the ability to spray an oily musk from glands under their tail. One species, the Striped Skunk is native across much of Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico. It is the only skunk found in our region.

All skunks have a distinctive black and white fur pattern that acts as a warning to potential predators. Striped Skunks are mainly black with a white stripe starting at their head, dividing down either side of their back and continuing to their tail. Each individual’s pattern varies. Some sources say it is as unique to them as our fingerprints are to us.

 Because of their intense defense, it is understandable that skunks would have a reputation as aggressive or scary. However, they have a fairly calm nature. Skunks are not large. They are about the size of a house cat. They are solitary except when females are raising their young. And they are mostly crepuscular, with most of their activity around sunrise and sunset.  

 I can attest to their docile nature. While camping on a summer weekend, my family was sitting around the fire. My younger cousin saw something moving slowly just outside of the fire’s light. After a few moments, she asked, “Whose cat is that!?” We all turned as the skunk waddled into our circle, smelling the ground for dropped food. We divided into two camps: those who sat as still as statues and those who slowly backed away. The skunk didn’t even seem to notice us and eventually moved on, most likely to another campsite.

 However, when skunks feel threatened, they can spray. They do give several warnings first. Striped Skunks may stomp their feet, lift their tail without spraying or even give a short mist of spray before committing to a full dose. But when those warning signs are not heeded, they can spray with accuracy ten to twelve feet. This spray is a sulfur-based compound similar to what is found in garlic and onions. This spray not only smells but can also irritate eyes. In high concentrations, it can cause humans to vomit. But that still may not deter a hungry predator. Skunks may be eaten by coyotes, foxes and Great Horned Owls.

 It shouldn’t have been a surprise to see a skunk in a campground. Striped Skunks are found in variety of habitats from fields and forests to suburbs and cities. Their success is due to their adaptability. As omnivores, they eat a variety of foods from plants to animals. They use their long claws to dig up insects, worms and other invertebrates they find in the ground. Skunks may eat bird and turtle eggs, frogs, salamanders and small mammals. They will also eat fruit and corn. In habitats around humans, compost, birdseed and garbage may also be part of their diet.  

So why was there a skunk smell inside my kitchen and, upon further exploration under the kitchen door in the basement? Like many animals, this is the time of year skunks become active. Striped Skunks are not true hibernators but they do spend a great deal of winter dormant in an underground den. Or an under-the- porch den. In talking with my neighbor, I learned that a skunk, with white stripes so wide they thought it was albino at first, was denning under his porch.  With the longer and warmer days, Striped Skunks are moving more and looking for mates starting in February. Two to ten babies, called kits, are born April through June. My back deck, directly next to the kitchen door, has a gap underneath it which would make a perfect temporary den for a skunk. Hopefully not a permanent one.

 After a few days, the smell went away. Since, I have noticed that recognizable smell outside a school, along the roadside and in the woods. And while not the most pleasant, I count it as just one more sign of spring.