Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Skunk

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HOSE who have had experience with this animal, surely are glad that it is small; and the wonder always is, that so little a creature can make such a large impression upon the atmosphere. A fully grown skunk is about two feet long; its body is covered with long, shining, rather coarse hair, and the tail, which is carried like a flag in the air, is very large and bushy. In color, the fur is sometimes entirely black, but most often has a white patch on the back of the neck, with two stripes extending down the back and along the sides to the tail; the face, also, has a white stripe.

The skunk has a long head and a rather pointed snout; its front legs are very much shorter than its hind legs, which gives it a very peculiar gait. Its forefeet are armed with long, strong claws, with which it digs its burrow, which is usually made in light soil. It also often makes its home in some crevice in rocks, or even takes possession of an abandoned woodchuck's hole; or trusting to its immunity from danger, makes its home under the barn. In the fall, it becomes very fat, and during the early part of winter, hibernates within its den; it comes out during the thaws of winter and early spring.

The young skunks appear in May; they are born in an enlarged portion of the burrow, where a nice bed of grass and leaves is made for them; the skunk is scrupulously neat about its own nest. The young skunks are very active, and interesting to watch, when playing together like kittens.


The Skunk

Photo by Verne Morton

The skunk belongs to the same family as the mink and weasel, which also give off a disagreeable odor when angry. The fetid material, which is the skunk's defence, is contained in two capsules under the root of the tail. These little capsules are not larger than peas, and the quantity of liquid forced from them in a discharge is scarcely more than a large drop; yet it will permeate the atmosphere with its odor for a distance of a mile. The fact that this discharge is so disagreeable to all other animals, has had a retarding influence upon the skunk's intelligence. It has not been obliged to rely upon its cunning to escape its enemies, and has therefore never developed either fear or cleverness. It marches abroad without haste, confident that every creature which sees it will give it plenty of room. It is a night prowler, although it is not averse to a daytime promenade. The white upon its fur gives warning at night, that here is an animal which had best be left alone. This immunity from attack makes the skunk careless in learning wisdom from experience; it never learns to avoid a trap or a railway or trolley track.

The skunk's food consists largely of insects, mice, snakes and other small animals. It also destroys the eggs and young of birds which nest upon the ground. It uses its strong forepaws in securing its prey. Dr. Merriam, who made pets of young skunks after removing their scent capsules, found them very interesting. He says of one which was named "Meph": "We used to walk through the woods to a large meadow that abounded in grasshoppers. Here, Meph would fairly revel in his favorite food, and it was rich sport to watch his manoeuvres. When a grasshopper jumped, he jumped, and I have seen him with as many as three in his mouth and two under his fore-paws at the same time."

The only injury which the skunk is likely to do to the farmers, is the raiding of the hens' nests, and this can be obviated by properly housing the poultry. On the other hand, the skunk is of great use in destroying injurious insects and mice. Often when skunks burrow beneath barns, they completely rid the place of mice. Skunk fur is very valuable and is sold under the name of Alaskan sable. The skunk takes short steps, and goes so slowly that it makes a double track, the imprints being very close together. The foot makes a longer track than that of the cat, as the skunk is plantigrade; that is, it walks upon its palms and heels as well as its toes.


Skunk Tracks

References—Wild Neighbors, Ingersoll; Familiar Life in Field and Forest, Mathews; American Animals, Stone and Cram; Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers, Burroughs.

Lesson LX

The Skunk

Leading thought—The skunk has depended so long upon protecting itself from its enemies by its disagreeable odor, that it has become stupid in this respect, and seems never to be able to learn to keep off of railroad tracks. It is a very beneficial animal to the farmer because its food consists so largely of injurious insects and rodents.

Method—The questions should be given the pupils and they should answer them from personal observations or inquiries.


1. How large is a skunk? Describe its fur. Where does the black and white occur in the fur? Of what use is the white to the skunk? Is the fur valuable? What is its commercial name?

2. What is the shape of the skunk's head? The general shape of the body? The tail? Are the front legs longer or shorter than the hind legs? Describe the front feet. For what are they used?

3. Where and how does the skunk make its nest? Does it sleep like a woodchuck during the winter? What is its food? How does it catch its prey? Does it hunt for its food during the day or the night? Does the skunk ever hurry? Is it afraid? How does it protect itself from its enemies? Do you think that the skunk's freedom from fear has rendered the animal less intelligent?

4. At what time do the skunk kittens appear? Have you ever seen little skunks playing? If so, describe their antics. How is the nest made soft for the young ones?

5. How does the skunk benefit farmers? Does it ever do them any injury? Do you think that it does more good than harm?

6. Describe the skunk's track as follows: How many toes show in the track? Does the palm or heel show? Are the tracks near together? Do they form a single or a double line?

Supplementary reading—Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers, Burroughs.

Saw a little skunk coming up the river bank in the woods at the white oak, a funny little fellow, about six inches long and nearly as broad. It faced me and actually compelled me to retreat before it for five minutes. Perhaps I was between it and its hole. Its broad black tail, tipped with white, was erect like a kitten's. It had what looked like a broad white band drawn tight across its forehead or top-head, from which two lines of white ran down, one on each side of its back, and there was a narrow white line down its snout. It raised its back, sometimes ran a few feet forward, sometimes backward, and repeatedly turned its tail to me, prepared to discharge its fluid, like the old ones. Such was its instinct, and all the while it kept up a fine grunting like a little pig or a red squirrel.

Henry Thoreau

Few animals are so silent as the skunk. Zoological works contain no information as to its voice, and the essayists rarely mention it except by implication. Mr. Burroughs says: "The most silent creature known to me, he makes no sound, so far as I have observed, save a diffuse, impatient noise, like that produced by beating your hand with a whisk-broom, when the farm-dog has discovered his retreat in the stone fence." Rowland Robinson tells us that: "The voiceless creature sometimes frightens the belated farm-boy, whom he curiously follows with a mysterious hollow beating of his feet upon the ground." Thoreau, as has been mentioned, heard one keep up a "fine grunting, like a little pig or a squirrel;" but he seems to have misunderstood altogether a singular loud patting sound heard repeatedly on the frozen ground under the wall, which he also listened to, for he thought it "had to do with getting its food, patting the earth to get the insects or worms." Probably he would have omitted this guess if he could have edited his diary instead of leaving that to be done after his death. The patting is evidently merely a nervous sign of impatience or apprehension, similar to the well-known stamping with the hind feet indulged in by rabbits, in this case probably a menace like a doubling of the fists, as the hind legs, with which they kick, are their only weapons. The skunk, then, is not voiceless, but its voice is weak and querulous, and it is rarely if ever heard except in the expression of anger.

Ernest Ingersoll in "Wild Neighbors"

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