One of the annual tell-tale signs of this is that this is the time of year we begin to see more dead skunks on our roads – an unfortunate side effect of hormonally charged skunks looking for love.
Humans aren’t the only ones that have romance on their minds at this time of year.
Valentine’s Day, which is this week, is the main event of affection on human calendars. However, mid-February is also when striped skunk courtship begins. One of the annual tell-tale signs of this is that this is the time of year we begin to see more dead skunks on our roads – an unfortunate side effect of hormonally charged skunks looking for love.
Skunks don’t only become road hazards at this time. Bred females will also be looking for protective dens to give birth and raise their young. Sometimes they choose spots in crawl spaces under homes, in barns or storage sheds – which also puts skunks closer to people than many of us are comfortable with. However, by practicing a little extra vigilance when driving and doing a little preventive skunk denning maintenance at home, you may be able to avoid a smelly confrontation with this well-known member of Missouri’s animal world.
To a certain extent, skunks have gotten an undeserved bad reputation. It is true skunks can get into unsecured trash bins, their digging for grubs can cause problems and they can pose occasional problems for poultry. However, they can provide benefits to humans, too. In addition to grubs, which are one of their favorite foods, skunks also consume mice, rats, moles, shrews and other small mammals which can be problematic for people. A dietary evaluation of a skunk’s feeding habits show approximately 68 percent of its diet is beneficial to humans, 27 percent is neutral and only about five percent is harmful. (It should also be pointed out that a skunk’s digging for grubs is kind of a wash in terms of problem vs. benefit for humans – the digging may be annoying to humans, but a skunk’s grub consumption can be beneficial.)
But these benefits are offset by the main reason people don’t like having skunks around; which is their odorous spray. This musk, which is a sulphur compound, is secreted by two internal glands. The glands are connected to two nipples at the base of the tail. The skunk exercises voluntary control over these scent glands and can aim behind, to either side or in front of itself. The musk is a thick, oily liquid. The scent glands contain approximately one tablespoon, which is sufficient to spray five or six “rounds.”
This spraying of scent, known as “musking,” occurs most often in self-defense. Skunks are reluctant to musk and often put up with considerable abuse before doing so. They usually give one or more warning signs before discharging any scent. One of these warning signs is a rapid stamping of the front feet loud enough to be heard several yards away. Skunks about to spray may also click their teeth, growl or hiss. Probably the most common warning sign is to raise the tail and erect every hair so that each one is practically at right angles to the tail’s axis.
As stated earlier, there are preventive measures humans can take which may help avoid these kinds of confrontations. Garbage and other food sources (dog food, cat food, etc.) attract skunks so make sure these items aren’t available. Grain storage areas that harbor small rodents may also lure skunks, so controlling mice and rats in those areas is a good anti-skunk measure.
Other debris in the form of lumber, fence posts, junk cars, etc. will provide shelter for skunks and may encourage them to utilize an area. Consequently, cleaning up the grounds around your home is another important step you can take to discourage skunks.
Information about avoiding skunk problems can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at www.missouriconservation.org