By Clint Ferguson
For The Register-Herald
Have you noticed a putrid smell in the air recently? Or why Pepe Le Pew is associated with love and Valentines Day? And most noticeably, more road killed skunks? The reason for all of the above is that right now is mating season for the striped skunks, which is the species most commonly found in West Virginia.
Skunks are black and white in color. The striped skunk gets its name from the white colored “stripes” that extend down the top of the back and then split into a V shape pattern continuing down the sides and hips. They also have white on the forehead as well as the back of the head. Each skunk is unique in that the width and length of the white stripes can vary from one skunk to another.
They have a bushy black tail that has a white tip on the end. Fully grown adults are approximately 2 feet in length, including the tail, and weigh between 3 to 12 pounds depending on the time of year. The males are heavier and larger than the females.
Skunks move at a slow pace and almost waddle when they walk. Their sense of sight, smell, and hearing isn’t the best but they make up for it with their nasty smelling defense mechanism. We’ve all smelled the smell of skunk before as it’s hard to describe other than putrid, nose tingling, and one that lingers for a long time.
It’s actually a musk that is an oily yellowish colored liquid that a skunk can unleash at any second. Skunks aren’t really aggressive creatures and will only spray if they are feeling threatened. They often give warning by stomping their front feet, arching the back, and raising their tail before actually spraying. If you encounter a skunk showing this type of behavior it’s best to slowly back away.
An angered skunk can shoot the vile smelling musk up to 12 feet. One got my dog Zep last summer and he stunk for a couple months. This defense mechanism helps keep the predators at a safe distance. However, owls will prey on skunks because they don’t have much of a sense of smell.
A skunk’s diet is made up of a variety of small mammals, insects, spiders, toads, eggs, fruits, grasses, nuts. They like to dig for grubs and will even dig out yellow jacket nests in the ground. They are mainly nocturnal and like the habitat found here in West Virginia.
The reason the skunks are so active right now is because breeding season is in February and March. Males will travel in search of a mate and even fight with other males. Imagine that, a male fighting another male over a female… huh, reminds me of high school.
Skunks den in underground tunnels that have a central chamber lined with grass and leaves. They may have more than one den site especially during the summer months. Litters consist of 5 to 7 young that are born after 2 months of pregnancy.
The young uns’ are weaned by the ripe ole age of 2 months and are fully grown within 6 months of birth. Some of the young may stick with mom over winter but they’ll disperse afterwards. Skunks become sexually mature in their second year.
In high populations, skunks can contract rabies, distemper, and other diseases. The striped skunk does have a smaller cousin, the eastern spotted skunk, but it isn’t as common here in West Virginia. What Eastern spotted skunks that are here tend to stay in the higher mountain areas of this state. They are smaller and weigh between 2 and 4 pounds.
Even though skunks may not be the most appealing wildlife, they are still neat creatures that also call this place home. They maybe a little stinky, but they’re neat and unique nonetheless. Just make sure you keep a safe distance when observing these “pole cats” as I’ve also heard them called around here.