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Studying Skunks

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By Serge Larivire, Ph.D.

Learning more about skunk behavior is helping DU improve waterfowl production on the prairies

Everyone, it seems, has a skunk story: Their dog got sprayed while hunting pheasants; while camping, one crawled into their tent; they almost stepped on one on the way to the duck blind, hit one with the car, locked one up in the garage, and so on.

In most cases, the story is a funny one and involves adjectives such as "stinky," "horrible stench" or, if the person was sprayed, words that may not be in the dictionary. Indeed, skunks are well known. After all, skunks are the only species of North American mammal that relies on chemical defense to stay alive.

Duck biologists also have skunk stories, although these are not so funny. On the prairies, duck biologists frown when the word skunk is mentioned, and for a good reason. In some areas of the prairies, skunks destroy more than 50 percent of the duck nests.

Nauseating stench aside, skunks are fascinating creatures. They go along peacefully, oblivious to the world around them in their quest for insects and small mammals, their main diet. Of course, skunks are opportunistic, and any bird egg they come across, duck or not, is also eaten. Frogs, snakes, carrion, and roadkill also complement the menu of the striped stinkers.

Skunks eat continuously because their survival depends on it. Like bears, skunks sleep during the entire winter. Like bears, too, skunks must double their body mass in fat during the summer and fall in order to have enough fuel to survive the winter. Fat skunks in the fall are lean skunks in the spring, but lean skunks in the fall are skeletons in the spring.

Winter is a tough time for a skunk. Interestingly, skunks spend winter differently from bears. Bears sleep alone, but not skunks. Skunks sleep in a group with other skunks. In fact, skunk groups in winter can consist of more than 20 individuals, one of which usually is an adult male.

Females sleep together to conserve heat, and an adult male sleeps with the females, waiting for them to go in heat. Not unlike maintaining harems, dominant males (usually the bigger males) must fight to keep other males away. Come spring, if each female has an average of four to seven "skunklets," skunk fatherhood takes on astronomical proportions.


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