Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Love Stinks

Texas skunks risk life and limb during mating season.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Alas, pity the poor skunk. Like snakes, spiders and vultures, this much-maligned creature receives little positive publicity and has next to no admirers. To top off its dismal — and foul-smelling — reputation, a skunk’s love life is rife with risks.

Come February — the start of breeding season — these shy, cat-sized creatures hit the road. Literally. In their after-dark quests to find mates, males often venture onto highways and rarely make it across alive.

“We see more numbers of roadkill skunks in February and March than other times of the year,” says Robert Dowler, a biologist with Angelo State University. “Preliminary data suggests that roadkill rates of skunks may double in parts of Texas during mating season.”

Last February, Dowler counted more than 50 dead skunks along the road on a 300-mile trip to Oklahoma. “That’s roughly one dead skunk every six miles,” he estimates.

Closer to home these days, Dowler and a team of graduate students are wrapping up a three-year study on skunks — striped, western spotted and hog-nosed — living in and around San Angelo State Park. (The two other North American species — eastern spotted and hooded — also live in Texas.)

Once completed, the study will reveal more about the secretive lives of skunks: what they eat (typically grubs, insects and sometimes, mice and eggs), how they interact, where they den, how far they roam, and what parasites afflict them.

In the field, university researchers successfully monitored striped and western spotted skunks using radio collars, remote cameras and analysis of tracks. “We found spotted skunks in thick brush and mesquite,” Dowler reports. “Striped skunks were there, too, and also in open fields.”

The hog-nosed species, however, stayed clear of traps. “They’re almost impossible to capture,” Dowler says. “We found them commonly as roadkill, but they wouldn’t go in our live traps. We tried for more than two years without success, using baits that included cat food, eggs, fruit and even a lure called Liquid Grub. Nothing worked.”

The males who do successfully cross the road likely mate, then move on to find more available females. Litters of four to seven blind kits are born in May or June. The young skunks remain in the burrow for about six weeks, and then venture out (usually single file) with their mother on nighttime hunts. By summer’s end, they’re on their own.

Unlike their relatives, western spotted males romance the ladies in September and October. After breeding, females keep fertilized embryos dormant — a process called delayed implantation — for several months until the embryos are implanted in the uterine wall, and development continues.

Data collected from the university will be used by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which is funding the project. “We want to develop management actions that will help maintain skunk populations,” says John Young, a TPWD mammalogist. “Not much is known about them because people don’t want to handle them, for obvious reasons.”

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