Strangely, one of the surest signs of spring in the Rocky Mountains is not the chirping of chicks from their nests or the fresh scent of blooming flowers, but the potent smell of skunks in the air.
Yes, this is the time of year that skunks become active; not just actively hunting, but actively mating and giving birth to young. And do I mean active! A male skunk will mate with as many females as possible, with an average of 10 females per season, a much luckier rate than the inauspicious Pepe Le Pew.
We have two types of skunks roaming our mountain valleys: The common striped skunk and the western spotted skunk. You are much more likely to interact with the striped skunk, which is less shy than the western spotted skunk. The striped skunk is also notorious for hanging out in road ditches, searching for carrion and trash as an easy meal. Unfortunately, rather than running away from oncoming traffic, its first instinct is to spray the potential threat with its noxious musk, trying to turn it into the carrion it likes to eat.
If you do have a chance encounter with a western spotted skunk in their typical habitat of wooded areas or prairies, then you might get to witness this small skunk’s amusing threat display: flipping onto its front legs and aiming toward its target by walking in a handstand. If you see this, watch out! Their spray is extremely accurate up to 10 feet and can hit targets from as far as 20 feet away. If this irritating chemical gets into their enemy’s eyes, then it will cause intense burning.
Fortunately for skunks, their bold black-and-white warning colors are usually enough to keep wild predators away. Their only significant predators are the great horned owl and other large birds of prey, which don’t have a strong enough sense of smell to care about getting sprayed. Still, this time of year they are very sensitive due to reproductive season. The striped skunk has been actively mating for about a month, whereas the western spotted skunk mates in the fall, and the female has delayed implantation until March or April. Each has an approximate two-month gestation period, with kits typically born in May.
Before giving birth, a female skunk will dig a den to protect her litter of two to seven kits. Kits are born blind and deaf but already have a thin layer of black and white fur. At 3 to 4 weeks old, their eyes open and they are able to discharge their potent smell. By the time they are 2 months old, they follow their mother on nightly foraging trips, learning to hunt and survive. Mama and kits stay together through the fall, and sometimes overwinter in the same den together before dispersing in the spring.
Love in nature is not all birds and bees, some of it can be love of a much smellier variety. If you can get over all the reasons not to get too close to a skunk, then perhaps you’ll fall in love with a critter you have always avoided!
Hannah Irwin is the community programs coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. After conducting intimate research for this article, she is wondering if anyone has tips about how to get skunk odor out of clothing.