The Winter Life of the Skunk

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

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 foxes.

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 and New Hampshire 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 20degreesand 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 adults.

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.

 
Discussion
  1. Bev → in Boston
    Sep 24, 2015

    I had several skunks that visited in the summer/fall of 2014, but had no skunks this year. We had a terribly cold winter with too much snow. Do you think they all died?

  2. Rei → in Boston
    Sep 27, 2015

    I’m watching a skunk burrow his winter den under a storage container right now. I wanted to know what all the rustling outside was at 5am - turns out he’s pushing leaves in front of the hole. This page was super helpful, thanks!

  3. sandy → in central n.h.
    Oct 13, 2015

    I have been feeding my skunks chicken, ears of corn some peanuts..is this a healthy diet?

  4. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Oct 19, 2015

    I think it’s always a bad idea to feed wildlife, Sandy. You’re training the skunk to associate humans with food, and your neighbor might not have the same tolerance that you do. If you want to encourage skunks in your yard, encourage beetle larvae in your lawn. Leave your garden a mess so the skunk can glean leftovers. Creating habitat will help skunks and other wild animals; turning wild animals into trained dogs who come in for dinner is just asking for problems. My two cents.

  5. Ed → in Bonners Ferry, Idaho
    Nov 12, 2015

    I had three skunks under my storage shed and shop since July. They were raiding my cats dish on my front porch. I got to going out in the evening and setting when they came out and talking to them. They finally got so I could pet on them. They are still wild but somewhat tame. I don’t see them as much since it has started into winter.

  6. Sharon → in Walkersville, Maryland
    Nov 23, 2015

    We live on a 100 acre farm and I put scraps/food out in the evenings for our skunks (most I’ve counted was 10 during summer) 2 gray foxes and an opossum.  I have a “critter cam” set up where I put the food and then upload pics to my computer.  It becomes very addicting to see what goes down outside in the middle of the night. 

    All species get along great, even though I’ve read fox urine will chase off skunks because they prey on them…. NOT lol.  The foxes are petrified of the skunks (and their own shadows).  Also, I’ve read a lot that skunks don’t drink much but that’s not the case here.  I have a birdbath on the ground out by their food.  If it gets dry they will revisit it 10+ times a night to see if more water magically appeared. 

    There’s a small opening under an old corn crib here and I’ve caught the skunks, opossum, groundhogs and rabbits all going in and out of there.  There’s plenty of groundhog holes under there so I’m sure that’s where they are.

    I haven’t seen the foxes in about 2 weeks and the skunk numbers are dropping every day.  Last night was the 1st time I’ve had nobody show up to eat…. so crows took advantage this morning.  Last nights’ temp was the coldest and with 12mph winds.  So I guess they are hunkering down for the winter.

  7. Peggy → in Portland, Maine
    Feb 16, 2016

    My skunk lives under the shed but seems to emerge pretty often as he (she?) sets off my outside motion sensor light in the middle of the night w/ his wanderings. Plus I can track his rounds through his prints in the snow. Maybe he didn’t eat enough this fall?

  8. Al → in Dearborn, MI
    Feb 20, 2016

    Under bright moonlight I observed what I thought to be a nearly all white skunk. Just a little black on its back near the tail.  How common is this coloration?

  9. Christine → in Cape Cod, MA
    Mar 05, 2016

    We have a six foot stockade fence around our back yard. In the fall around dinner time, my husband was out cooking on the grill, I was pulling weeds out of the garden, as I stood up I saw a huge plume of a skunk tail about 2 feet from where he was cooking. I screamed “Skunk”. He very slowly backed away, the skunk never sprayed. Now that winter is here, we have been smelling skunk scent almost every morning from our basement bulkhead -  frequently the smell resonates into our kitchen upstairs. We do not see any large holes around the bulked. We do have a shed, near the fence, but do not smell anything in that area. Looking for advice. Thanks

  10. Stan Kemble → in USA
    Aug 06, 2016

    I’ve got two pet skunks that were rescued from wild as orphans. My little one was found clinging to it’s dead mother. They make awesome pets, though they’re not for everyone. I spend a lot of time with them, and they both sleep in bed with my wife and me. They haven’t been de-scented, but only the little one has sprayed when the cat jumped on his back.They’re a riot to have around. Don’t let the wild ones eat too much cat food, the high protein is bad for their kidneys. Great little animals to have around.

  11. Christine → in Ohio
    Jan 25, 2017

    I don’t know about you guys I could do without the skunks. One have squirted and it really is strong and offensive.

  12. Brodie → in South bend, IN
    Feb 04, 2017

    Super serious question.  Do skunks go south for the winter?  Also if they lose a limb will it grow back like a Lizard?  If they do not, anyone have some good skunk soup recipes.  Thanks in advance

    Best Regards

    Brodie

  13. Cindy greiner → in Sandusky ohio
    Feb 12, 2017

    Does anyone suspect it may be the smell of propane leaking?

  14. Sara → in NY
    Mar 05, 2017

    Is it possible for skunks to spray under your home (I’m guessing they may be denning there for the winter) when it’s 3°f? I know their metabolism slows but there’s nothing about spraying during the winter.

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