When it comes to skunks, it’s a black and white world. The striped skunk, common throughout the lower 48 states, is all about polarities – from its black and white fur to its simultaneously noxious and beneficial impact on its fellow earthlings.
Roughly the size of a domestic cat, the striped skunk has leonine confidence. Why wouldn’t it? Its anal glands carry a chemical weapon that deters predators like bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, bears and humans. Researchers have long believed the skunk’s chief enemy is the horned owl, but even that theory has fallen into question in recent years.
Not even venomous snakes pose much of a threat. The skunk can withstand up to 10 times the amount of venom lethal for a comparably sized animal.
The biggest threat to skunks may well come from vehicular traffic. In February and March, country roads, suburban streets and even highways are littered with skunk corpses. The critters are out and about in search of mates. Because of the paucity of predators, Mother Nature did not equip skunks with good eyesight. The critters compensate with an excellent sense of smell, which helps them locate food sources – and mates. They have little interest, however, in sniffing out the Toyotas and Fords whizzing along on the road to skunk love.
The male skunk who manages to dodge cars and find a potential mate still has one daunting challenge to overcome. If the object of his ardor does not share that emotion, no mating will take place. If the suitor persists, nonetheless, he will get a full, odiferous, temporarily blinding blast of female wrath. The painful lesson will be a long one, because skunk musk has remarkable staying power. Because of its persistence, the musk, chemically altered, is used as a base for many perfumes.
The eye-watering stench of skunk spray has given mephitis, as the critter is formally called (from the Latin for “bad odor”), a bad reputation. After dousing themselves and their pets in gallons of tomato juice, vinegar and peroxide-baking soda solutions, skunked humans are not favorably disposed toward mephitis.
More’s the pity, because omnivorous skunks do humankind many favors. They eat a boatload of crop-damaging insects and keep rodent populations in check. Skunks also do their human detractors a service by snacking on the eggs of snapping turtles.
Nor is the skunk unwilling to share terrain with others – and has even been known to share den space with foxes and raccoons. Mephitis is reluctant to deploy his chemical weapon and will issue several warnings first. Those warnings include snarling, stamping the front feet, arching the tail forward and presenting the rump. A slow, cautious retreat in response to those warnings is usually enough to defuse the situation.
Confrontations can also be prevented by making sure smelly trashcans are securely lidded and by barring access to potential den sites under decks or in crawl spaces.
Now that mating season is upon us and love is in the air, literally, keep an eye out for the black and white suitors as they plod along the road. They deserve a brake.
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989.