I admit it. Winter is not my favorite season for hiking. There just isn’t much happening. Much of the flora and fauna of the forests is either gone, dormant, or dead. It’s also cold, damp, and gets dark much too early. But, of course, each season has its unique conditions and events that can only be seen at that particular time of the year.
I love hiking in the snow, especially in a National Park, where the more interesting mammals are likely to be found. I am always impressed by how many tracks one can find in the Shenandoah National Park. Deer, of course, lead the list, along with the smaller rodents (squirrels, chipmunks, mice). Bobcats and fox are common and the prints of coyotes are becoming more abundant. Even bear tracks can be found on many hikes. In our region, while most are sleeping in a dormant state under fallen tree stumps or hollow tree snags, quite a few will get out on fair weather days while a few will remain active all winter long.
One track I look for in late February and March is that of our native striped skunk. The front tracks are 1" long and wide (hind feet 1 ½" long and 1" wide) with five pointed toes on front and rear feet. The distance between sets of prints (stride) in this squatty, slow, flat-footed (plantigrade) creature, is only 4-6". Although not always the case, if you see the four foot prints in a line diagonal to the direction of the path, you’ve got a skunk.
The limited breeding period is in February and early March. During this period, you will have a better than normal chance of finding tracks, or even the carnivore itself, especially if you are taking an evening hike on a snow-covered area under the light of a full moon. Skunks tend to be most active in the morning and evening (crepuscular), like deer, or, less commonly, nocturnal.
But that’s not to say you can’t find them in the daytime. I had the good fortune to come across a skunk a few years ago on the Nicholson Hollow Trail. It was one of the first warm days of the season in early March. The skunk was lying prostrate in the middle of the trail, with all four legs and tail flat and spread out on the ground! I presumed it was dead, but on closer inspection, I was somewhat startled when it suddenly got up and started to walk away! Two thoughts instantly came to mind. First, I had read that, if you can pick up a skunk by it’s tail, it can’t spray you. Second, I realized here was probably the one chance in my lifetime to test that story. So, after stepping up and picking it up, I had my hiking companion, Kurt Rowan, take the picture you see above. My first attempt to scratch its head resulted in a three second flurry of teeth and claws. However, on my second attempt, a minute later, the skunk allowed me to pet it, which I continued to do for the next few minutes. Upon Kurt’s inevitable question of ‘What are you going to do with it now?’ I figured that if the skunk could spray a distance of 15’, I could throw it 16’! But, being the intrepid risk-taker that I am (did you say fool-hardy?), I simply set him down on the ground and watched him waddle away.
Looking at the photo, you may notice two things. First, there’s no white on the skunk’s back; just two white areas on top of the head. The second thing you might notice is that my white spot of hair on my chin makes me match the skunk quite nicely.
Striped skunks have a quite variable fur, or pelage, usually consisting of two white stripes of varying lengths and widths, but can be one stripe; large or very small. Albinism is known to occur, but no melanistic, or all black, skunks. The black and white coloration, also found in porcupines, seems to be a “flag” that can be easily seen, both day and night, warning potential predators to avoid confrontation.
The winter activity level of the skunk coincides with the prevailing weather. In our region, they will remain underground for a week or two in extreme weather conditions. In more northern climes, skunks can spend long periods of winter in its den (from three weeks to 100 days in Canada), living off its fall-accumulated brown fat (fat can make up 30-50% of total weight in late fall. They are known to share winter burrows (but separate chambers) with opossums, woodchucks, and cottontail rabbits and other skunks. Some authors say they actually will curl up together to share warmth.
Females may den together in winter with one or two males in the northern limits of their range, but the males are more apt to be solitary in this Appalachian study area. A record of 20 skunks (19 females and one male!) has been observed in one winter den. Usually there averaged one adult male and 6 females per den.
Skunks are the ultimate omnivore. Eating grubs, bees, and plants in summer, their winter diet is more focused on small rodents. They have even been known to prey on cats!
Despite the protection afforded their famous musk glands, skunks are preyed upon by great-horned owls, who, although having terrific hearing and sight senses, suffer a bit in the olfactory sense. In fact, it has been recorded by researchers, that practically all great-horned owls in the skunk’s range smells of skunks, one of its main prey items. One owl nest had 57 skunk carcasses beneath it.
Speaking of its musk, did you know it is used as a perfume base (once the odor is removed)? The refined fluid has a great capacity to fix and retain aromas. The active ingredient is a sulphide called butylmercaptan.
Skunks make good pets if surgically descented by removal of the scent glands. In fact, skunks were popular as pets in the early 1900’s, but sold under the name of “sachet kittens”. Today, they are illegal in most states as pets, due to their susceptibility of transmitting rabies. About 50% of all confirmed rabies comes from skunks (the leading carrier in the US, ahead of raccoons). Rabies found in skunks can be either the “furious” kind or the “dumb” kind, normally associated with bat rabies.
There are two skunk species in our Appalachian region. Besides the striped skunk, the spotted skunk is a southern Appalachian species, found as far north as the Big Meadows Swamp in our Shenandoah National Park. They are the most primitive members of the carnivore order.