The Scent of Skunk

In winter, cold, dry air and frozen ground suppress most of nature's fragrance. One potent exception is the scent of skunk musk, which wafts through the air and is detectable by our relatively poor olfactory system for up to a mile from its source.

Skunks, members of the Mephitidae Family, are represented by at least ten species across the globe, most of which are native to the Americas. Omniverous and crepuscular, skunks roam about to feast on a wide variety of plants, small animals, eggs, garbage and carrion; guided by an excellent sense of smell but hampered by poor eyesight, they represent a large portion of our roadkill. Of course, it is their volatile and irritating musk that wards off many natural predators (great horned owls excluded); produced in perianal glands and found to contain a mix of sulfur-containing thiols, this noxious musk can be accurately ejected for up to 15 feet. Mustelids (weasels, otters, martens, badgers and wolverines) have similar musk glands but, in comparison with skunks, their glands are less developed and their musk is less potent.

Hikers and homeowners have little to fear from these docile creatures; their poor eyesight does not permit planned attacks and they use their musk only in defense. Most often encountered during their mating season in late winter or early spring, skunks spend much of the winter in communal dens, venturing out during periods of relatively mild weather. After mating, females dig their own burrows and give birth to 4-6 kits by May; they will stay with her through the summer, learning to find food and striking fear in potential predators that associate their distinctive coats with foul, irritating showers of musk.