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Great Horned Owls & Striped Skunks


Striped Skunks do have predators other than Great Horned Owls (bobcats, foxes and coyotes-fishers have been known to prey on skunks, but very infrequently), but these predators have to be pretty desperate before they will prey on a skunk.  Automobiles and disease kill more skunks than all of their predators put together, but Great Horned Owls have the distinction of being the primary predator of Striped Skunks.

Being a nocturnal hunter, a Great Horned Owl necessarily consumes prey which are nocturnal. Striped Skunks are active at night and are consumed by Great Horned Owls with regularity, even though a skunk can weigh up to three times as much as a Great Horned Owl (average GHO weighs a little over 3 pounds) and has a potent way of defending itself.

For many years scientists assumed that birds had a poor sense of smell because the area of a bird’s brain involved in smell is relatively small compared with the area found in mammals.  However, recent research reveals that birds have a high number of active genes that are associated with smell, and many species may have an excellent sense of smell.  It’s fairly safe to assume, however, from its consumption of skunks, that the Great Horned Owl’s sense of smell is not very well developed. In addition, if a skunk sprays, much of the odor is absorbed by the Great Horned Owl’s leg feathers, which extend down to its talons.

A favorite memory of mine is walking through a field at dusk and suddenly noticing a strong skunk-like smell coming from above, not below, me. A Great Horned Owl silently flew overhead, with only the tell-tale smell of a recently-captured skunk announcing its presence.

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10 responses

  1. Alice Pratt

    So many responses and so many correct! What a wonderful experience to see & smell a GHO.

    February 17, 2017 at 8:21 am

  2. Kathie Fiveash

    Mary, you are not only a great naturalist, but also a wonderful writer. I can see it, smell it, fully imagine it. Thank you!

    February 17, 2017 at 9:31 am

    • Thank you – and may I return the sentiment!

      February 17, 2017 at 10:35 am

  3. Hi Mary, I love your blog! Always learn so much. I have a question–in my area skunks are notorious for breaking into chicken coops and killing many of the hens. But they don’t seem to eat them. Do you know why they do this?

    February 17, 2017 at 9:49 am

    • Hi Svetlana, I am aware of this behavior, but I cannot tell you why they kill more than they will eat or cache. Perhaps another reader can provide some insight!

      February 17, 2017 at 10:34 am

  4. Alice Darlington

    Mazing, but how can the owl carry a skunk three times its weight?

    February 17, 2017 at 9:57 am

    • My assumption is that it tears it into swallowable pieces at the kill site.

      February 17, 2017 at 10:33 am

  5. Cheron barton

    Have u heard these owls?? They are early nesters!! I think … January

    Sent from my iPhone


    February 17, 2017 at 10:39 am

  6. I’ve recently heard a GHO down by the river. We don’t hear them often, but I expect they are around. There seems to be more barred owls.

    February 17, 2017 at 10:44 am

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