A Cute Mammal With an Odoriferous Reputation

February 15, 2023

One day last week when a colleague and I were out by Outlet Creek, in the area of the Little Lake Mitigation Lands called the Cox 80, we saw a foraging skunk in the daylight. This was the second time I had seen a striped skunk in that area, and this one appeared larger. Neither skunk looked sick or delirious with rabies, they just appeared to be busy looking for food. Although mostly active at night, it is normal for skunks to occasionally look for food during the day if they are hungry or have young. It was a treat to see this one out in the daylight. This winter has been a cold one and maybe the days’ sunshine was the reason the skunk had been out.

The Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis, is a docile mammal that has an odoriferous secret weapon for protection. Every dog I have owned has had to learn the hard way to give these black and white cat-sized creatures a wide berth. Once on one of our evening walks, my dog who was walking along the trail and sniffing out scents, had the experience of a Striped Skunk coming out of the bushes backwards with its tail raised spraying an enormous cloud of vile smelling vapor. The skunk had perceived my dog as a predator and instinctively defended itself. This caused my dog to howl and run in the other direction. It was an education in paying attention to shrubbery on the sides of the trail for both of us.

The skunks that I photographed in Little Lake Valley also sauntered out of a dense clump of blackberries and willows and disappeared back into them once they noticed there were people around.

There are two species of skunks found in Mendocino County, our common Striped Skunk, and the uncommon Spotted Skunk, Spilogale gracilis. The differences are many, including the obvious that one is striped and the other spotted. Since I have not seen any Spotted Skunks out in the valley I will focus today on the Striped Skunk.

Before DNA studies were done on this genus it was thought that skunks were part of the weasel family. They are now classified in their own family called Mephitidae. Skunks produce an oily, sulfur alcohol compound that contains sulfuric acid. This is the reason why it can feel like burning when it gets in your (or your dogs) eyes or nasal passages. This penetrating and pervasive liquid is stored in two glands on either side of the anus. It can travel through the air with a force and can hit targets accurately six to ten feet away. It is a successful defense mechanism and can cause nausea, severe burning, and temporary blindness allowing the skunk to get away from its predators.

Skunks have a triangular-shaped head and an elongated body with short, muscular legs and long, sharp non-retractable claws. They are often described as the size of a house cat with the males being bigger and heavier than the females, sometimes ten or more pounds. The iconic white stripe goes across the head and neck and then divides into two stripes along the body, with some white in the tail though overall it is mostly black.

Skunks have an excellent sense of smell and good hearing but very poor vision which is probably one of the reasons why they are so often hit by cars. They are active at dawn, dusk, and in the evening and can be more active during the day around residential areas.

Their long strong claws make them good diggers. They are adaptable and opportunistic feeders and eat a variety of food, from earthworms, grubs, small rodents, snakes, lizards, frogs, and mushrooms to eggs of ground nesting birds. They den in burrows, brush piles, hollow logs, and culverts. Around residential areas they may den under decks, porches, and foundations.

Breeding occurs from February to March and gestation is about nine weeks. A Striped Skunk can have litters of four to six kits.

Here in Little Lake Valley, there seems to be a large population of Striped Skunks and we get them on our video cameras almost every time. It is a delight to watch them sniffing and scratching their way around the riparian areas with their plume of a tail behind them.