by Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist
Lately I have heard a lot of buzz about the recent frequent sightings of skunks. I don’t know about you, but to me this means we’re finally getting somewhere with predator control! “Pole cats” have a bad reputation and most people stigmatize them for their horrendous odor, but they are actually pretty cool from an ecology stand point. The striped skunk is the most common skunk here in the Southeast and I will discuss their characteristics/breeding habits, habitat, and population status.
First and foremost, these skunks are easily identified by their black bodies and a thin, white stripe down the back that sometimes forks into other smaller white stripes. The white stripe begins at the nose and goes to the tip of their tails. Males are 15% larger than females, but females have a longer tail than the males. Skunks are polygynous, meaning males will breed with multiple females. A skunk becomes sexually mature at 10 months of age and the gestation length ranges from 59-77 days. The female will reproduce about two litters a year. The litter will usually consist of 2-6 young and the young will not open their eyes until they are about 3 weeks old. During this time, they learn to eat and survive by following their mother. The young are able to spray even with their eyes closed!
Striped skunks range all across North America from east to west. Historically, skunks were found in wooded forests and grassy plains. Today, most skunks are found in cultivated areas and suburban neighborhoods. As long as there is access to insects and small mammals or carrion, a skunk will survive in any given habitat. Some skunks have even been documented in Mexico!
Scientists believe that the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, population has been stable. I disagree. Many hunters have said that they went years without seeing skunks and suddenly they are starting to reappear. I believe this is due to our recent impact on predator control. Over the last few years, predator control has become important to many landowners and hunters nationwide. Due to this sudden increase in predator control, species that were lower on the food chain are starting to reappear again. The striped skunk is a result of increased pressure on predators in the Southeast. In addition to the predators, skunks were also once valued for their fur but today their pelts are not as valuable as they once were.
Whether you hate the things or you’re happy to see their presence again, they are ecologically important because they keep our insect population in check. Without skunks or possums, the human race would be drowning in insects. You have to give it to them, spraying a terrible odor when threatened is a pretty nifty defense mechanism and they get their point across very effectively. Be on the lookout for the pole cats while you are out and about this hunting season!
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