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Striped Skunks

Striped Skunks Mating

A very high percentage (96%) of female Striped Skunks become pregnant each breeding season.  Both males and females are covering a lot of ground this time of year (up to 2 ½ miles per night), visiting each other’s dens in search of a mate.  While male skunks are promiscuous, mating with as many females in their territory as they can, females mate once and fight off any further attempts from other males.

Unlike primates, who experience “spontaneous ovulation” and ovulate midway through their menstrual cycle, female Striped Skunks, along with cats, ferrets, and rabbits, are what is known as “induced ovulators” – the act of copulation stimulates ovulation, which doesn’t occur until copulation has taken place.

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Yellowjacket Nests Being Raided

Because yellowjackets do not produce or store honey one might wonder why striped skunks, raccoons and black bears frequently dig up their underground nests.  It is the young yellowjackets (larvae), not honey, that is so highly prized by these insect-eating predators.  At this time of year it is crucial for them, especially black bears who go for months without eating or drinking during hibernation, to consume enough protein to survive the winter.

Whereas adult yellowjackets consume sugary sources of food such as fruit and nectar, larvae feed on insects, meat and fish masticated by the adult workers that feed them. This makes the larvae a highly desirable, protein-rich source of food. (Yellowjacket larvae reciprocate the favor of being fed by secreting a sugary material that the adults eat.)

Three to five thousand adult yellowjackets can inhabit a nest, along with ten to fifteen thousand larvae. Predators take advantage of this by raiding the nests before frost kills both the adults (except for fertilized young queens) and larvae in the fall.  Yellowjackets are most active during the day and return to their underground nest at night.  Thus, animals that raid them at night, such as raccoons, striped skunks and black bears, are usually very successful in obtaining a large meal.  Occasionally, as in this photo, the yellowjackets manage to drive off predators with their stings, leaving their nest intact, but more often than not the nest is destroyed and the inhabitants eaten.  (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op of yellowjacket nest (circled in red) dug up by a black bear – note size of rock unearthed.)

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The Sniff Test

1-30-19 red fox marking img_7153When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.

At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.

Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)

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Striped Skunks On The Move

9-25-17 striped skunk IMG_1777Winter’s coming and in the Northeast, Striped Skunks are preparing for the cold months ahead. Before they usurp the abandoned quarters of a Muskrat or Red or Gray Fox (or bunk with a willing Opossum or Raccoon), they spend a great deal of time foraging and putting on life-sustaining fat. Even though a state of torpor slows their metabolism down during the coldest months, skunks must bulk up in the fall, as they lose up to 65 percent of their body weight over the winter. Thus, they meander far and wide looking for food this time of year. In addition, this year’s young are still dispersing. For these reasons, you may have encountered the smell of skunk or the sad sight of striped roadkills in your travels lately.


Can Young Skunks Spray?

 

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When under dire stress, adult Striped Skunks will employ their two anal glands and anoint a perceived threat up to 16 feet away (with the wind’s help) with their potent musky spray of butyl mercaptan. (This same compound is used as an additive to natural gas (which is almost odorless) to enable its detection by smell when natural gas escapes or leaks from pipes.)

Often it is assumed that very young skunks do not have this capability, and for the first seven days of their life, they don’t. However, musk is present in a skunk’s anal glands at birth and can be emitted on day 8. The pictured skunk (and its three siblings) were rescued after their mother was killed by a car, and as you can see, thanks to a positive experience with the nurturing hands of its rescuer (Lou White), it is not interested in utilizing its defense mechanism to defend itself against an admiring naturalist. (Photo by Lou White)

Naturally Curious represents a passion for learning and teaching about natural history that I am fortunate enough to be able to pursue. If and when the spirit moves you to support my tiny contribution to your day, I would love for you to donate to a fund that was set up to support my recently-widowed daughter and her two-year-old. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://www.plumfund.com/financial-hardship/sadie-brown-otis-brown-fund. Thank you so much.


Snapping Turtle Nests Raided

7-3-17 raided snapper nest 001Female Snapping Turtles spend a lot of time and effort finding suitable sandy soil in which to dig their nest and lay their eggs. Some turtles have been found laying their eggs as far as a mile from the nearest water source. Once she has laid her eggs and covered them with soil, the female snapper returns to her pond, leaving her eggs to hatch on their own, and the hatchlings to fend for themselves.

It is estimated that as many as 80 to 90 percent of all turtle nests are destroyed by predators, weather conditions and accidental disturbances. Most of the damage is done by predators – skunks, raccoons, foxes, crows, among others. Most nests are discovered by smell, and most are raided at night. The fluid that coats the eggs, that is lost by the mother during egg laying or is lost through breaks in the eggs, produces a smell that is easily detected by predators. While a majority of nest raids happen within the first 48 hours of the eggs being laid, studies have shown that predation occurs over the entire incubation period (June – September). The pictured Snapping Turtle nest was dug up and the eggs consumed 10 days after they were laid.

If you are aware of a spot where a turtle dug a nest and laid eggs, you can try to protect the nest from predators by placing either a bottomless wire cage or an oven rack over the nest site, and putting a heavy rock on top. The tiny hatchlings will be able to escape through the openings but hopefully, if the rock is heavy enough, raccoons and skunks will become discouraged and give up trying to reach the nest.

The next Naturally Curious post will be on 7/5/17.

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Striped Skunks Seeking Mates

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Striped Skunks are on the prowl, as your nose may have told you recently – males are eagerly seeking out the company of females at this time of year and are often hit by cars traveling at night. The peak of the Striped Skunk breeding season — the third week of March — will soon be upon us. Males will mate with several females in succession and then they often protect their harem against other males by hitting them (other males) with their shoulders or biting their legs. Once a female has been successfully bred, she will not allow further mating activity and will viciously fight any male that attempts it.

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Great Horned Owls & Striped Skunks

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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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Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.

Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).

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Striped Skunks Ferreting Out Fungi

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The perfectly round, inch-wide, ½-inch-deep holes in the ground that Striped Skunks leave when they’ve been digging for grubs are a fairly common sight. There are other edibles besides grubs, however, that they dig for: insects, earthworms, rodents, salamanders, frogs, snakes and moles, among others. The list isn’t limited to living creatures, however, as skunks are omnivores. Their diet, which changes with the seasons, also includes fruit, grasses, nuts and fungi. Pictured is a hole excavated by a Striped Skunk and the remains of the fungus that was fruiting there. At this time of year, it is not unusual to find that a meal of mushrooms is the object of their digging desire.

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Young Striped Skunks Learning How To Fend For Themselves

6-28  young skunks2  267For the past six to eight weeks, young striped skunks have lived off their mother’s milk, but now the time has come for them to learn how to provide for themselves.  The mother teaches her four to eight young by taking them all out at night to learn how to forage for insects and small mammals.  Should you encounter one of these small, furry creatures, do not be fooled into thinking it is too young to spray.  Musk is present at birth, and can be released at the ripe old age of eight days.  (Thanks to Don Westover and Lou White for photo op)

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Puzzling Kill Site

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Close examination of the bits of fur scattered over a 15-inch-diameter patch of snow reveals that the animal to whom the fur belonged was very small and would have appeared brown to an observer. (The hairs are black, but they have a brown tip.) This eliminates gray/black shrews and moles, leaving a white-footed mouse (due to habitat) or a species of vole (most likely meadow vole) as the victim. Striped skunk tracks led to the remains of this rodent, which is not surprising, as mice (Peromyscus sp.) and voles (Microtus sp.) are high on their list of preferred vertebrates. What is puzzling is why the fur wasn’t consumed and why so many of the internal organs (top of photo) were among the discarded fur. A skunk would neither skin nor eviscerate its prey. Explanations welcome!

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Striped Skunks Digging For Grubs

10-21-15 striped skunk 221Congratulations to the many of you who knew that the swirls/holes that are present in forest floors, lawns and anywhere there are grubs are the work of a Striped Skunk. The swirls (or “twizzles,”as one reader called them) are created when the skunk is actively looking for food, and probes the ground with its nose. If and when it smells a protein-rich earthworm or grub (larval insect) in the ground, it digs a hole in order to retrieve it. These cone-shaped holes are dug at night, when skunks are active, and often appear after a heavy rain. This is because grubs move closer to the surface of the ground when the ground is wet, making it possible for a skunk to smell them. When the soil dries, the grubs move back down into deeper soil and skunks will no longer be able to smell them — thus, no more holes will be dug. Because many animals are eating voraciously in order to put on fat for the winter, signs of digging activity are frequently seen in the fall.

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Two-month-old Striped Skunks Can Spray!

7-15-15 striped skunk2 058The answer to yesterday’s mystery photo is a lot less original than many of your guesses, all of which could have been true, given my natural curiosity. I am embarrassed to admit that it was the oily, yellow spray of a young striped skunk that covered my spectacles (and my entire head, arms and camera) – even with ample warning, I chose to persevere in order to get the perfect picture. Unfortunately, the skunk was a lot more successful at his mission than I was at mine.

There is a reason why coyotes, foxes and most predators (one exception is the great horned owl), including most sane photographers, keep their distance from striped skunks. Whether newborn or several years old, skunks are capable of using their musk-filled anal glands to ward off anything that threatens them. Skunks are generally reluctant to spray, however, as they only have a few teaspoons (half an ounce) of musk in their glands, and once their supply is depleted (five or six sprays), they are defenseless for about 10 days, while it builds up again. Hence, plenty of warning is given in the form of stomping front feet, erect hair, raised tail, and chattering before a skunk contracts the muscles surrounding its anal glands and shoots a pungent, yellowish spray as far as ten feet away. Only a fool would not heed the warning given…and be forewarned – a skunk’s aim is surprisingly accurate.

The organic compounds that make the smell of skunk spray so offensive are called thiols (mercaptans). Thiols are also found in garlic and onions, and form parts of the keratin in hair. If your dog or you happen to be at the wrong end of a skunk’s partially everted anus, the best combination to neutralize the musk smell is 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon of liquid dish soap. (Thanks (?) to Tom Ripley for photo op.)

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Ruffed Grouse on Nests

ruffed grouse on nest  020A Ruffed Grouse’s nest is pretty basic – just a shallow bowl on the forest floor, created by the hen grouse tossing leaves over her shoulder and having them fall on her back, slip down to the ground and form a bowl. Ruffed Grouse lay anywhere from 9 to 14 eggs at intervals of 25 to 30 hours, which means it takes about two weeks for a hen to lay an average clutch of 11 eggs. Each of her eggs weighs about 4 percent of her body weight — the entire clutch will be equal to about half of her weight. Once incubation starts (when the last egg is laid) the hen’s behavior goes from wandering around and feeding voraciously, to sitting on the nest and barely moving. Because of this behavior, as well as her cryptic coloration, an incubating Ruffed Grouse hen is much more likely to see you before you see her. She will stay motionless on her nest, even in the face of danger, hiding her eggs. Once she is certain she has been spotted, she will fly off the nest, exposing her eggs. Foxes, crows, ravens, chipmunks, skunks, bobcats and raccoons are some of the predators responsible for the loss of 25% – 40% of grouse nests each year. After the precocial Ruffed Grouse chicks hatch during the first two weeks of June, they will be led away from the nest site by the hen. Within 24 hours they will be feeding on insects and within a week they may double their weight! (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Striped Skunk Mating Season

3-14-14 striped skunk 082Striped Skunks are on the prowl, as your nose may have told you recently – males are eagerly seeking out the company of females at this time of year and are often hit by cars traveling at night. The peak of Striped Skunk breeding season is typically the third week in March. Males will mate with several females in succession and then they often protect their harem against other males by hitting them (other males) with their shoulders or biting their legs. Once a female has been successfully bred, she will not allow further mating activity and will viciously fight any male that attempts it.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Striped Skunk Mating Season

2-18-13 striped skunk tracks IMG_3244Striped skunks are nocturnal and, for the most part, semi-dormant in the winter, especially during cold spells. The females often gather in communal dens in groups as large as 15. Come mid-February the polygamous males become very active, searching far and wide for mates. Although the mating season doesn’t peak until mid-March, tracks throughout woods and fields confirm that the breeding season is in full swing. During a typical night a skunk may cover ¼ to ½ a square mile, but during the breeding season, this increases to 4 or 5 square miles.


Striped Skunk Predators

2-8-13 skunk prey-david putnam005 (2)At first glance, this looks like any other kill site, but if you look closely at the hairs, you’ll see that it was a striped skunk that was preyed upon – a rare find, for two reasons. One is that striped skunks spend most of the winter holed up and only amble out during warm spells (which we had recently). Their mating season is also about to begin. The second reason that this find is unusual is that skunks have very few predators, for obvious reasons. Great horned owls and occasionally a coyote, fox or bobcat will risk being sprayed. In this case, tracks were not evident by the time it was discovered. Initially the lack of anything other than hair suggested that the predator was a mammal which carried off the skunk (great horned owls usually eat at the kill site). However, it turns out that the absence of bones, etc. doesn’t actually rule out an owl. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, occasionally when a great horned owl kills more prey than it can eat, it caches the remains for later use. When in need of food, the owl will incubate frozen prey until it thaws and can be eaten. (Discovery and photo by David Putnam.)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Signs of Striped Skunks

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If you are finding small, conical pits in your lawn, you probably have a striped skunk to thank for reducing your grub population.  During the spring and summer, invertebrates make up a large percentage of this nocturnal omnivore’s diet.  With the help of their well-developed sense of smell and their long nails (which make them excellent diggers), they locate, gain access to and consume subterranean insect larvae with relative ease.   Another sign of skunk activity, in addition to lawn divots, are the excavated ground nests of yellowjackets.  If they’ve met with success, skunks will often leave sections of empty, paper cells scattered about the nest site.  Apparently, even though yellowjackets can sting multiple times, they’re not very effective at discouraging foraging skunks.  Should you be so inclined, a close examination of skunk scat will reveal bits of insect exoskeletons, as well as the bones and hair of small rodents.  The pictured scat (next to the divot) contained, in addition to insect parts, the fur of another nocturnal animal, a flying squirrel.  (Thanks to Emily and Joe Silver for photo op.)