In summer, you always know when a striped skunk has been around.
But in winter, these animals make themselves scarce, hunkering down
to wait out the onslaught of ice and snow.
Unlike most rodents and birds, which hoard food for the cold
months, the striped skunk will have spent the fall eating as much
as possible so it can stay warm during mid-winter dormancy. This
binge eating creates thick layers of fat underneath the skin- a
winter jacket, of sorts. The skunk metabolizes this fat during its
dormant rests, though at a much slower rate than in summer.
Striped skunks use different den sites at different times of
year, so their winter burrow will usually not be the same place
where they raised their young. While capable of digging their own
winter burrows, skunks are more inclined to seek residency in
spaces that belong to someone else. For example, they find comfort
underneath human-built porches or decks, a fact that some of us
(and our noses) may be all-too-familiar with. Those skunks that
live away from residential areas will often commandeer burrows dug
and deserted by other outdoor dwellers, such as woodchucks or
Once colder temperatures set in, a skunk will prepare its den by
blocking off the entrance to its burrow with leaves and grass to
keep the cold air out. It isn't uncommon for striped skunks to
burrow with each other for extra warmth - these cohabitating skunks
have the advantage of social thermoregulation, where they use each
other to stay warm. Males sometimes den communally during winter,
but are not tolerant of each other during other seasons.
Winter denning season in Vermont typically runs from November
through March, but this isn't to say that skunks aren't active
during winter. Settled into its winter home, the striped skunk
becomes dormant, but does not enter a full state of hibernation.
Instead, skunks enter a state of torpor - a sort of deep sleep from
which they awake from time to time. During torpor, which is
influenced by the temperature and food availability, their body
temperatures can drop 20 degrees and their metabolism slows.
As the season changes from winter to spring, skunks will emerge
and seek a mate. Striped skunks are a polygamous species and a male
will take multiple mates over the course of late February through
April; a female will only mate once. After breeding, both males and
females seek to rebuild fat reserves, having lost, on average,
about 30 percent of their body weight during winter. Females will
establish maternity dens, sometimes communally. Males spend the
warm months alone.
The arrival of spring brings not only warmer weather, but new
food sources. The omnivorous skunk goes from a lean winter diet of
carrion, fruit, and seeds to a summer diet rich in insects, small
mammals, and sometimes our trash. As bee keepers are well aware,
skunks have a fondness for bees and will consume honey, larvae, and
The scientific name for the striped skunk is Mephitis mephitis,
meaning "bad odor." The word "skunk" itself is one of the few
Algonquin Indian words to enter the English language.
Megh Rounds is an Environmental Educator from Maine. The Outside
Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and
sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New
Hampshire Charitable Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org