Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mephitis mephitis

With the deep snow and chilly temperatures, wild animals are relying on shear tenacity to survive the final months of winter. Birds like Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, Blue Jays, Nuthatches, Juncos, and Goldfinches welcome the free seed put out on the office deck, as do the squirrels and mice. We received a little unexpected guest today in the form of a striped skunk. He waddled up to the building and has been digging through the snow below the bird feeders, trying to scrounge what little sustenance he can from the discarded seeds. Striped skunks were once thought to be members of the weasel family, however, a recent report in the Journal of Mammalogy by Dragoo and Honeycutt (1997) suggests placing striped skunks in their own family ("Systematics of Mustelid-like Carnivores". Journal of Mammalogy 78 (2): 426–443). They begin emerging from winter dens at this time of year to track down mates (you might notice an increase in skunk roadkill over the next few weeks). Skunk kits are born from mid-May to mid-June and stay with Mom for up to a year. Though it has a bad reputation for spraying would-be predators (or your family dog) with foul-smelling liquid, this is not the striped skunk's first choice of defense. When approached by an assailant, skunks will first try to run away. With such short, stubby legs, however, running is not likely to be effective. Turning towards the attacker with arched back and stomping feet is Plan B. Only if the intruder still does not take the hint will the skunk resort to spraying. This makes sense, considering it takes up to 10 days for the skunk to replenish its supply of stink.

Photos courtesy of Pete Whan, Mark Zloba, and Jessie Huxmann.