Nature Discovery with Renée!

Time for an adventure this week with Librarian Renée! Today’s Nature Discovery blog will feature an amazing animal that lives in our neighborhood!

What’s that smell??

You can tell summer is just around the corner. The daytime temps are starting to soar and the air conditioners are starting to roar! Thank goodness the trees are now mostly filled for some much needed shade and for those of us who enjoy opening the windows at night, the cooler evenings are lovely. This past week, however, I have been stirred from my peaceful slumber by a distinct smell, and it’s not the lilac bushes!

Can you guess what I am?

  • I am an omnivore
  • I am mostly nocturnal
  • My name means “Bad odor”
  • Even though I have a powerful stink, I’m actually quite docile
  • My musk has been used to make perfume

If you guessed skunk, you have a NOSE for being a naturalist!!

Striped skunk
Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

Yup, it is that time of year when you can catch the lifting scent of the lilacs and irises in bloom or the ominous scent that makes you wonder “is the dog outside?!” It must be skunk season!

Skunks are around all year long, but we typically don’t think much of them until this time of year. Skunks don’t hibernate, but they will den and stay inactive during the winter months. While skunks are mostly solitary animals, meaning they live alone, female skunks in particular will share winter dens with other skunks and other animals. Starting as early as late February and lasting through April, skunks will venture out of their winter dens and begin the mating process.

Baby striped skunk, or kit
Baby striped skunk, or kit

Male and female skunks only come together during the mating season. Most females will only reproduce, or have babies, once a year and males skunks are polygamous, meaning they will have more than one mate. In mid May to early June, females will give birth to 4-7 babies, or kits. They are adorable and the primary reason for the nighttime smell fest!!

Just like us, skunks are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. During the spring and summer months they are primarily insectivores, meaning their diet consists mostly of  insects. The rest of the year they may eat worms, small rodents, eggs, and vegetation. They may also eat trash and pet food left outside. Skunks are nocturnal, or active at night; however, especially this time of year when the females need to eat more to nurse and feed their young, it is not uncommon to see them at dusk and in the early morning.  This behavior is called crepuscular

Skunks are known for their bad smell. Their scientific name, Mephitis, comes from the latin word mephit, which means bad odor. This smell comes from a musk that is produced in special scent glands. Most mammals have scent glands, but the skunks scent glands are especially large. A skunk can spray it’s musk up to 6 meters, or almost 20 feet!

Skunk about to spray
Skunk about to spray​

The musk mist can spread further and can be smelt over three miles away.  Because of the lasting nature of their stink, skunk musk has been used in the formulation of perfumes! Skunks spray their musk to defend themselves from potential predators and occasionally to ward off other skunks. It’s a heck of a defense system for a notable docile, or mild-mannered, animal. Skunks are usually not aggressive, but mama skunks can be very protective. Kits begin foraging for food with mom at about 6 weeks of age, and while they do have scent glands, they are not able to spray their musk, and are thus defenseless.  They are easy prey for predators.

Most wild animals know better than to approach a skunk, but mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, and great horned owls will risk a spray to have skunk on the menu! And of course, many of our canine companions are just too curious. My pooch has been overly curious with skunks in our yard on more than one occasion.

We have tried all the de-stink remedies and the one that works the best is avoidance! Having learned the hard way, we now have some strategies in place to help avoid suffering for all. Renee's dog in the tubIf our dog seems extra-excited about going out in the evenings, we first do a yard check. Her behavior lets us know there’s something in our yard she wants to investigate. Similarly, if we hear a lot of other neighborhood dogs barking when it’s dark out, that’s a good indication there is a skunk among us. Another strategy for avoidance: make sure you don’t leave trash cans or pet food outside. Many years ago we used to leave cat food outside our back door. That stopped the day we opened the door to see a skunk looking back at us!

I like the evening breeze, so I will leave my windows open, come what may. And when I am startled awake at 1am from that unmistakable smell, at least I can peacefully fall back asleep knowing my dog is inside. She is, right?!

Want to learn more about these stinky, yet mild-mannered and adorable creatures? The Library is now offering curbside pickup: put Skunks on hold today!

Looking for a fun outdoor family game? Check out my video on how to play Skunk vs. Predator:

Until next time, Happy Adventures! -Renée

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