Striped Skunk Dossier

by Carl Strang

As striped skunks complete their mating season, this seems an appropriate time to share my dossier of observations on the species.

Skunk, Striped

Striped skunk

Striped skunk

I rarely saw skunks around Culver as a child, perhaps because of their nocturnal activity pattern. Saw one on a road south of town near S.R. 110 while on a run, at dusk, as a teenager. I took plaster castings of tracks at the Bird Sanctuary, Culver Military Academy. Later I saw some in the early evening, visiting picnic grounds at the state park on South Mountain in Pennsylvania. They moved with a somewhat rolling, unhurried walk. Individuals brought to Willowbrook in live traps almost invariably spray as soon as the trap is opened. The spray has a very sticky, lasting quality, and causes a sickening sensation when fresh and concentrated. Youngsters discover their spray ability when 6-9 weeks old. The distinctive black and white color pattern almost certainly is aposematic. That pattern is highly variable in detail, i.e., width and length of stripe, amount of white on head, and number and position of scattered small white spots. The skin beneath is white or black, corresponding to the fur color. Stomping, used as a threat, essentially is an emphatic dancing from one front foot to the other. It is employed against both conspecifics (littermates) and potential predators. The tracks have 5 toes showing, both front and back feet. In suitable substrates, the toenails of the front feet register distinctively distant from the ends of the toes. When toenail marks are missing, the track gives the impression of a miniature cat track (though with the extra toe). Generally, the entire footprint appears as a solid, unlobed block; creases across the soles of the feet are evident in medium-consistency substrates. Tracks rarely are encountered, however. Apparently there is very little activity in winter.

Skunk tracks, hind on left, fore (showing long toenail marks) on right

Skunk tracks, hind on left, fore (showing long toenail marks) on right

17/18FE86. I followed a fresh skunk trail. Gaits in deep snow (4-8″) were diagonal walk and lope, primarily, on an early spring ramble. This skunk ate some mushy crabapples from the previous fall. It went about half a mile on Willowbrook preserve plus an unknown distance on adjacent properties. The den (near Willowbrook picnic grounds) was a tunnel dug in a well-drained location, on an east-facing slope, sheltered by a crabapple. Tracks suggest it was shared with 1-2 cottontails.

4NO86. Diagonal walk in mud, probably the same skunk described in the previous account, at rehab area west gate.

28NO86. Sand seems to stick unusually well to the flat soles of a skunk’s feet, deposited on sticky mud to form roundish or oval spots of sand grains (Culver Fish Hatchery).

29NO86. Memorial Forest near Culver. Lope (bound?) In sand, 6″ between sets of tracks, each set 12″ long.

Sketch of track patterns in the string observed on November 29, 1986

Sketch of track patterns in the string observed on November 29, 1986

28JA87. One or perhaps more than one skunk on walkabout last night in Willowbrook Back 40. Paths extremely convoluted and interweaving, not enough time to sort them out. No skunk came out of the picnic grounds burrow.

3FE87. Skunk on walkabout again, same area. Suddenly it seemed to be taking great leaps. The snow crust froze in open spots at night, so the skunk did not break through in those places.

5FE87. Skunk pulled dead shrew (previously cached by fox) to center of trail but left it.

27OC87. A skunk ran across the road in our Warrenville neighborhood (Summerlakes subdivision) in early evening (around 6pm). It elevated the middle of its tail, giving it a strange, double-humped appearance.

18OC88. In Cactus Camp prairie, tracks show where a skunk dug out a yellow jacket nest recently. A few wasps still were flying in and out.

12JA89. A dead skunk on Park Boulevard at Willowbrook, came out mid-winter.

8SE89. Skunk diagonal walk, flat soft topsoil. Hind foot landing in front of and slightly overlapping front foot. HF 1-5/16″ wide x 1.25″ long.

8JA90. Willowbrook. On the night of the 5th or 6th, a skunk was out. Those were warm nights.

7MR90. Willowbrook. Skunks have been very active the past couple of nights. One has a burrow at the south edge of Willowbrook preserve, south of the stream. They made a couple stream crossings (water, not ice). One of these continued straight north all the way across the preserve.

Typical bounding gait pattern

Typical bounding gait pattern

1SE90. As I ran on the Prairie Path in Warrenville near the library in early evening, what appeared to be a large cat emerged from the vegetation at the side and then stopped in the middle of the path as I approached. Thinking to frighten it out of the way, I began to snap my fingers and accelerated. The cat was strange…it seemed to change shape. Then I saw the stripes and quickly backpedaled. It was a family of skunks, so tight together they seemed one animal in the distance in the dim light. There were at least 3 young with the mother. They had stopped and faced me, partly lifting their tails, all of which made the stripes easy to see even in the darkness. After I backed off they continued on their way.

25FE99. I found a skunk den in the far NE corner of the new Willowbrook preserve addition, under a pile of stacked old telephone pole segments. As many as 4 skunks were active on the preserve the previous night.

16FE00. A skunk on walkabout at Willowbrook last night, the first sign of skunk activity this winter there.

12SE05. Caesar Creek campground, southeastern Ohio. There is much evidence of skunks in the area. In the dusk, a large beautiful individual whose broad back stripes had joined, giving it a white back with just a little black between on the lower back, passed my campsite. Later in the dark, a smaller individual was digging grubs in the lawn of the adjacent campsite. This one was all black with a tuft of white on the head and another at the tip of the tail. It turned away when I shined a light in its eyes, coming as close as 15 feet. It moved slowly, its head sweeping back and forth sniffing, but when finding something to dig it moved quickly, excavating and moving on within about 3 seconds. The next morning I took photos of some of the holes, and of a pile of scats. The holes were mostly neat, ½” diameter, dug out on one side with toenail marks clear, occasional larger ones up to 2” diameter. The scats were stacked weasel fashion, each ½” diameter X 2” long, 3 pieces, one broken with a tiny root sticking out.

One of the holes described on September 12, 2005

One of the holes described on September 12, 2005

The scats described on September 12, 2005

The scats described on September 12, 2005

19JA11. Mayslake. From the night before last, which was the warmest this month (only dropping into the 20’sF), tracks of a skunk. It may have originated from the known den in the north stream corridor. Its winding trail covered much of the north stream corridor prairie, parts of the main prairie, cut from the small savanna at the north end of the prairie across the driveway’s turning circle into the strip of vegetation along the west edge of the preserve, wound through that as it worked its way north, eventually crossed the driveway again at the 31st Street Woods, and continued heading east along the north end of the parking lot marsh.

21JA11. Mayslake. I went to the known skunk den hole in the north stream corridor to see if it was the home of the skunk I tracked 2 days ago. It had not been entered or exited. I picked up the skunk’s trail where it had gone around the N end of the parking lot marsh, and followed it to a hole in the top of the ridge between that marsh and the stream (created when the marsh was excavated), and even with the marsh’s center. It appeared that the skunk had emerged and entered the hole, but the tracks were obscured by large ice crystals developing around the hole’s edge.  Later it occurred to me how unusual those crystals were. Are they growing on moisture from the skunk’s breath?

Skunk den entrances usually are around 6 inches in diameter.

Skunk den entrances usually are around 6 inches in diameter.

23FE11. Mayslake. For a time I mistook a skunk’s trail for that of a mink. What threw me off was the first impression, where the toes spread an unusual amount in thin snow over slick ice. I failed to attend the other tracks carefully enough for a long time, though I was somewhat bothered by the long toenails and the animal following the trail rather than the lake edge. As I approached the den near the friary site I saw similar tracks, confirmed much coming and going and digging at that den, then went back and found that if I had paid closer attention to all the footprints I had been following, I would have realized sooner that they were skunk tracks. The main underlying condition was the thin layer of snow over ice, with enough of a percentage of round-looking tracks resulting to sustain my error.

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