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.
Many 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).
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.
For 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)
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!
Congratulations 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.
The 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.)