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365 Urban Species. #090: Striped Skunk


photo by cottonmanifesto

Urban Species #090: Striped Skunk Mephitis mephitis

Opinions seem to be polarized on the subject of skunks. Many people admire them, as beautiful (or at least cute) mammals that thrive in urban environments. Many others are revolted or frightened by them. Their name can be used as a modifier meaning "bad-smelling," or directed with bile as an insult. The captive skunk on exhibit where I work is most often greeted with "Pee-yoo!" even though his anal glands have been removed, and he smells better than most cats.

The skunk's defensive weapon is so singular, so effective, that it defines the animal and is reflected in its behavior. There are several species of skunk; all are boldly black and white. The coloration is a warning label that alerts predators to try elsewhere. Skunks are slow and deliberate, almost nonchalant, as they go about their business. They need not skulk or cower, at least not in the city. A sniff or a stamp is usually enough to deter more persistent or dimwitted predators, except for the occasional idiot dog. In the wilderness they are more cautious, necessarily wary for predators that are desperate, or, like the great horned owl, bereft of the sense of smell.

The skunk found in most North American cities is the striped skunk--a bit of an indistinct name, as their pattern varies from individual to individual. Different striped skunks can be anywhere from nearly black to nearly white, but they consistently have a stripe between their eyes. The other three skunk species are spotted or striped black and white to varying degrees as well. Striped skunks are among the least particular skunks in terms of diet. Small animals from insect larvae to poisonous snakes are their favored food, but they happily eat fallen fruit and various seeds, and carrion. Suburbanites are sometimes vexed by holes in their lawns, caused by skunks digging to get at grubs. In the winter many skunks survive on the spilled seed at birdfeeders. Roadkill is a major food source for urban skunks, and feeding upon it is a major cause of death for skunks. A skunk confronted with a car may sniff and stamp, or even spray, but the car always wins. Most urban people become familiar with the odor of a skunk after one dies in the road.

I have encountered skunks in Boston numerous times. I have never been sprayed, despite the best efforts of my dogs to induce attacks. In my experience, skunks are reluctant to use their nuclear option, but there are plenty of others whose tomato soup baths are part of a different story.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 1st, 2006 05:24 am (UTC)
Do they vocalize at all? Like-ferrety noises or anything?
Apr. 1st, 2006 07:22 pm (UTC)
Our captives make a scratchy, chirpy, hissy sound rarely. They're quiet most of the time. (do ferrets make noise?)
Apr. 2nd, 2006 02:40 am (UTC)
They make a sort of breathy chuckley noise sometimes, when they want to play. Not the fake movie-ferret trill noise (that I think might actually be raccoons), just a really quiet sound.
I think they might make a disgruntled growley noise if they're irritated. I haven't been around a ferret in a good 10 years.
Apr. 1st, 2006 05:57 am (UTC)
I saw a skunk in downtown Toronto when I was there... it's the only non-captive skunk I'd ever seen, other than roadkill.

I wasn't aware of their phenotypic variation in their patterning. Interesting to know.
Apr. 1st, 2006 12:42 pm (UTC)
i love skunks!

were you already reading my LJ when i came outside on a winter's night (december, maybe) and discovered one on a bit of snow (a few inches, i think) in my garden eating the half-rotted apples that had accumulated on the ground from the tree next door? it looked up at me, and i looked down at it, and then it did that nonchalant thing you talk about, and just started going back to poking around at the apples. it was biiiiig - including its tail it was probably almost a meter long (though that might be a bit of an overestimate). with my keen-for-a-human sense of smell, after that i would often notice at daybreak that my garden had that slighter muskiness they leave behind on plants when they're walking around without actually spraying. it happened in all seasons.
Apr. 1st, 2006 03:50 pm (UTC)
You've got a typo in there (eyess).

I'll never forget being at that place in the cape and hanging out on the porch with my sister and seeing like a billion (well, maybe 6) skunks doing their thing in the hotel courtyard.
Apr. 2nd, 2006 03:31 am (UTC)
You can call me Flower if you want to!
Last summer we were walking home after going out for dinner and I noticed an animal across the street foraging at the base of a tree. We stopped to figure out what it was when it noticed us. It went *bounce* *bounce* *bounce* towards us. About a meter away, we both suddenly realized what it was and we ran like our lives depended on it. It was totally headed right for us.
Jun. 18th, 2006 08:54 pm (UTC)
i found some baby skunks
Aug. 6th, 2006 06:26 am (UTC)
Mythbusters went out to test various products claimed to remove skunk smell. But of course first they needed to be skunked. So they got a skunk and tried to make it spray. It refused to spray. They got another skunk - it also would not spray despite much noise and taunting. They didn't go too far for fear of totally stressing out the poor creature.

So it would seem getting sprayed by a skunk isn't the inevitability most people seem to think it is.
Aug. 29th, 2006 05:12 am (UTC)
I live in an urban area that is in transition from rural. There was for a time a critter that I think was a skunk that ate insects under the street lights. But, it was different. Twice the size of the little black striped fellow. Had long gray fur with a dark stripe. Has anybody seen such a skunk??
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


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