The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 21, 2003


Biodiversity corner:

Striped Skunk Mephitis mephitis nigra

The small holes that appear in our yards and gardens overnight are often the result of a nighttime visit by a skunk, which was digging for grubs. This summer we were visited frequently by a rather bold skunk, who managed to explore our garage as well as our yard. This skunk was particularly fond of yellow-jacket nests and dug a hole about 10 inches deep to get the entire comb out of one of the nests. It took over two weeks for the skunk to completely empty the nest.

Wood Pussy, Polecat and Civet or Civet Cat are nicknames of the skunk.

Description: The Striped Skunk, which occurs throughout the United States, is the only species of skunk found in New England. About the size of a house cat, it has a black body with a narrow white stripe on its forehead and a broad white stripe on its back. The length and pattern of this stripe are extremely variable, usually dividing into a "Y" at the shoulders. The skunk has a small head, short legs and a bushy tail, which in the adult is about 15 inches long. Each foot has five toes and the front feet have long, curved claws for digging.

Food: In addition to grubs and yellow-jacket nests, skunks eat mice, eggs, insects, carrion and berries and other plant materials. They eat frogs, small rabbits, crayfish and are also fond of pet food left in dishes outside.

Behavior: Skunks are nocturnal and are usually active from just after sundown until just before sunrise. They may dig their dens in the ground, but prefer to use existing cavities such as under abandoned buildings, in culverts and in wood or rock piles. The burrows may be up to 50 feet long and are generally three to four feet underground.

We have not found the den of our visiting skunk yet, but we watch carefully as we work on our large brush piles.

The skunk unearthed this comb from a yellow jacket nest.

Skunks are gentle, myopic and slow-moving animals who like to be left alone. If disturbed the skunk first gives a warning by throwing its tail up, then it will stamp its front paws and shuffle backwards. Further disturbance results in a fine spray of foul-smelling liquid from the glands near the anus. Skunks do not hibernate and will appear on warm nights in the winter.

Their distinctive spray protects skunks from most other animals. Their main predator is the Great Horned Owl.

References: Wild Animals of New England by Alfred Godin; Peterson Field Guide to Mammals by William Burt and R. Grossenheider; Pocket Guide to Animal Tracks; Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America by James Halfpenny; An Introduction to Massachusetts Mammals (Mass. Audubon).

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito