Skunks are fascinating, often misunderstood mammals that belong to the weasel family. These furry black and white creatures live all over the US near farms, woodlands, and close to cities. They are calm nocturnal animals that shy away from conflict whenever possible. However, skunks do spray their putrid yellow substance at people, pets, and other wildlife if threatened or under attack.
This piece looks at the life cycle of skunks from birth through to death.
Skunks are adaptable and can thrive in all kinds of habitat where there is food and shelter. They mark out territories with scent, but they’re not aggressively territorial. Skunk territories often overlap with those of other skunks. They see each other but tend to keep a distance to avoid conflicts. These animals rarely stray more than two miles from the den, so they’re never far from a water source.
Not all dens are underground. In fact, digging an underground burrow is usually the last resort. Skunks prefer to live in hollowed out logs or tree hollows. They also make homes in abandoned animal burrows and brush piles. Those in urban areas may set up homes under porches, decks, and garden sheds, etc.
The skunk mating season starts around mid-February through to March in the US. A healthy female or doe gives birth to one litter every year between late April and early June. Polygamous males, aka bucks, go looking for partners during the night. They may venture out as far as five miles from their shelter in search of a mate. Fit males will copulate with multiple females during this period.
Female skunks can’t ovulate without mating. That makes them induced ovulators like cats, rabbits, ferrets, and various other animals. Skunk sex needs to be rough to induce ovulation. The male will often draw blood while biting his mate hard on the back of the neck. Female skunks can store the sperm separate from their eggs if the weather happens to be unfavorable for conception.
Male skunks have no part in rearing the young kits, so females chase them away after copulating.
Male skunks are a little larger than females across all species. Both sexes look the same despite the slight difference in size. They’re also solitary animals outside of mating season and don’t display any apparent sexual dimorphism. Thus, it’s virtually impossible to know a skunk’s gender on appearance alone. Aside from a genitalia inspection, animal behavior is the best way to tell the sexes apart.
The male skunk is polygamous and roams the earth looking for mates. Females are less active and spend a lot of time in the den or burrow. That’s because they need to guard their home from male interlopers. You know a skunk is female if you see kits nearby as she rears them alone.
A female skunk is a placental mammal with an average gestation period of 63 days give or take. She may give birth to only two babies or produce a litter of nine or more. The small helpless kits are born with soft black & white marked fur. The newborns are blind and deaf and weigh between 32–35g (1.12–1.23 oz.). The eyes start to open at around three weeks as other senses begin to develop.
Kit’s eyes are fully open after four weeks, and three weeks after that, it’s time for weaning. That’s when mom introduces the young kits to the world outside the den. She keeps them close by her side and continually scans the environment for predators. That could be other male skunks, including the father of her kits. If a male skunk enters the den, there’s a good chance he’ll kill her babies.
Mothering skunks allow the female juveniles to stay with her longer than adolescent males.
Most animals are fiercely protective of their offspring, and skunks are no different. People or predators that pose a threat to the young kits will get a dousing of oily skunk spray if they don’t back off. The babies are also born with this potent weapon, albeit a less pungent mephitis than the adults. Kits have less restraint and are more likely to spray without warning.
The precious musky oil takes a few hours to replenish, leaving the skunk vulnerable. That explains why they don’t spray unless it’s necessary, but also because they’re non-aggressive by nature.
The mother teaches her offspring all they need to know on how to survive in the wild. That includes warning predators by stamping feet, raising the tail, and short, aggressive charges. She also shows them how to dig using the five sharp claws on the front feet. Skunks are omnivorous animals, which means they feed off plants and animals.
Female skunks introduce their kits to a creature diet that consists mostly of the following:
And the typical plant foods for skunks are:
What skunks eat and when depends on local habitats and the changing seasons.
Baby skunks grow up fast, and it’s time for the kits to go their separate ways by the fall. The young adults then venture out into the world alone, armed with the skills taught by mom. The females make secure homes as the males roam outdoors looking for new mates. And so the cycle continues.
Skunks in the wild don’t live long. They have a very short life expectancy of just 3–4 years. Almost one-third of their natural life has passed before they leave the den, and that’s if they make the full cycle. Sadly, 50–70% of young skunks won’t reach their second birthday. These vulnerable animals are also susceptible to health issues caused by parasites, viruses, and contagious diseases.
The 5 most serious health issues a skunk face are:
That last point is of special interest to humans, so let’s look at the rabies issue in more detail.
Skunks are the primary carrier of the zoonotic disease rabies in the American Midwest. It’s never wise to approach a wild skunk anyway, but never get close to one that has suspected rabies. They can carry two types of the disease, i.e., Furious and Dumb. A skunk with the Furious form displays unnaturally aggressive behavior. Those infected with the Dumb (paralytic) form tend to be unfazed by humans.
Other signs may include disorientation, an unsteady gait, and foaming or drooling from the mouth. Anyone who sees a skunk with suspected rabies should contact animal control without delay.
It’s a sad fact that many kits end up as orphans. Absent mothers are often victims of roadkill or predation. Coyotes, cougars, red foxes, and even domestic dogs are some of the carnivores that prey on them. Humane trappers also capture skunks and relocate them elsewhere. They do this not knowing the lone females are raising litters nearby, but it’s a sad occurrence nonetheless.
An average day in the life of a skunk is quite uneventful. They’re nocturnal animals, so they spend most of the day sleeping in dens. Skunks become active at sunset and through the night during the summer months. Most of that time is spent foraging, though females are also busy rearing their young. Both male and female skunks gorge during the fall before they retreat to the den.
These animals don’t hibernate during the cold winter months, but they do enter a lethargic stage. It’s during this time that the otherwise solitary creatures group together for warmth. A huddle of skunks may include two or more females, but usually only one male.
There aren’t any official statistics for skunk populations in Canada or the US, only estimates. Many states don’t even try to keep records of the animals, but they do keep data on rabies. One thing is certain, and that is, the numbers are rising nationwide. There even seems to be skunk population explosions in some regions, especially the American Midwest.
Spotted and striped skunks are the most widespread in North America, and the greatest cause for concern. Biologists put the rising skunk population down to an overabundance of human garbage and shelter. Thus, skunks are becoming more urbanized as a consequence. Milder winters also contribute to population growth. Figures may fluctuate between states and species each year.