You can smell that faint stench of skunk everywhere in the spring, summer, and fall months. Yet in the winter months, you start to notice they aren’t around as much. So you may be wondering ‘do skunks hibernate in winter?’
Wild skunks do not hibernate in the winter months. Skunks don’t have the biological ability to lay dormant for long periods of time. As skunks remain active in winter they need to make adaptations to survive. In winter skunks will adjust their fur, diet, habitat, and physical activities.
If you want to know more about how skunks adapt in winter then keep reading. This guide will take you through everything you need to know about the changes that skunks make to their life in the winter months.
Let’s get started.
Can Skunk Hibernate?
Hibernation is a period of dormancy that some animals can go through in the winter. The purpose of hibernation is to help animals to survive through the winter months. This is when food supplies are scarce and winter conditions harsh.
The process of hibernation allows animals to reduce their heart rate, breathing, metabolism, and temperature to minimal levels. These animals also don’t pass waste during this time. Being able to do these things allows animals to save as much energy as possible when conditions are not good for them.
Hibernating animals have blood chemicals and hormones that are triggered by the falling temperatures and reducing sunlight. Once triggered the animals start to go into a state of dormancy for weeks or months at a time.
Skunks do not have the ability to go into true hibernation mode. During winter the skunks will need to stay active to find food, good shelter and eliminate their waste. Winter conditions pose risks to the skunks’ survival and so they need to make special adaptations.
What is Skunk torpor?
Skunks may not be able to hibernate but they can go into a state of torpor. This is a mild version of hibernation.
Torpor allows skunks to have short periods of inactivity. During this time the skunks will reduce their heart rate, breathing, and metabolism. Just not to the extent that a hibernating animal would.
Skunks will go into a state of torpor to save energy when conditions are particularly bad. This is usually when the winter weather is at its worst and there is a very low food supply. Resting during this period allows skunks to save energy. Otherwise, they’d be foraging during bad weather conditions. This uses up vital energy resources and makes them vulnerable to starving predators.
How Do Skunks Survive In Winter
During the winter months most wildlife has to make adaptations to survive the harsh winter conditions. Wild skunks are no different. Skunks will make a variety of preparations before and during the winter season.
The adaptations are vital to ensure skunks stay warm, safe and find food easily.
Let’s look at what skunks do to see out the winter each year.
1. Grow a Coat
One of the first physical changes a skunk will make in winter is to grow a new coat. Their fur is normally shed in the summer months to keep them cool. Then as the winter months approach the skunk grows a dual fur layer.
One layer of fur is the upper hair that you see on the outside. This is known as the guard hair. In winter it grows longer and thicker. This allows skunks to become as weather-resistant as possible. As winter brings frost, winds, and snow which can easily make a skunk quickly lose body heat.
The second layer is one you don’t see. It’s a soft and fluffy underlayer that provides a warm blanket-like insulation for the skin. The under-layer provides a second layer to protect the skunk from anything that the guard hairs didn’t.
A double layer allows the skunk to keep any cold temperatures getting in, but also stops body heat from getting out.
2. Build a Fat Layer
Skunk seem to eat everything and anything they can get their hands on. They are opportunistic eaters and will eat anything including meat, vegetation, and even trash.
The reason skunks eat so much isn’t because they are greedy, but it’s a part of their winter survival strategy.
In summer there is lots of food around for the skunks to fill up on. Whilst food levels are high the skunks can overeat. This causes them to build up a layer of brown fat for winter.
Brown fat not only provided skunks with a thermal layer to stay warm, but it also gives them the energy to go for long periods without eating. Even better is that it gives off heat as its burned away, making sure the skunk maintains its temperature.
Brown fat is an emergency energy supply that the skunks can tap into when they can’t find food during winter. That means the more fat they can put on during summer, the more likely they are to survive the winter conditions.
Brown fat is stored all over the skunk’s body, especially around its vital organs.
Extra brown fat can mean the difference between life and death for a skunk if a winter is particularly bad or longer than expected.
3. Change their diet
Skunks are omnivores so they have the ability to adapt their diet depending on seasonal availability. Insects make up most of their diet in the spring, summer, and fall months. Yet insects are a lot harder to find in the winter as they are in a state of diapause.
Skunks will often dig in the ground for grubs, but in winter this can be a lot harder due to frozen soil or thick snowfall.
In the winter skunks will switch their diet to eating small rodents, vegetation, berries, and nuts. They’ll also roam further into urban areas where they can find bird seeds, pet foods, and trash to eat in yards.
Yet going through periods of torpor reduces the amount of food that a skunk needs to find in the winter. They can rest for a few days at a time without having to find more food.
During winter skunk will try to build their dens near a good food source so they don’t have to travel too far to find food. This also helps them to reduce their risk of predators finding them.
4. Build a den
To remain safe and warm in winter a skunk needs to find a safe and secure place to go into a state of torpor. A good den will protect a skunk from the weather and from nearby predators.
Skunks will often dig holes in the ground to use little burrows. They can also use hollowed-out logs, leaves, or woodpiles too. Some skunks may take shelter in dens abandoned by other animals.
Skunks will start to look for good winter dens from around November.
If a skunk recognizes your yard as a good food source they may try and build a den close by. This means they can attempt to live under your porch, in sheds, or crawl space under your home. Skunks aren’t great climbers so you don’t need to worry about them getting into your chimney or attic space.
From spring to fall Skunks normally move dens every few days. During winter skunks stay in their dens a lot longer than they do in other seasons. Usually, they are solitary creatures but in winter they will often den in with other skunks. This allows them to share body heat and increases their chances of survival.
5. Start Mating
Skunks will start to mate around about February time. This is a strategy they use to help the young survive the winters.
Once the kits are born in March there is a plentiful food supply. This gives the kits a few months of experience before they need to survive the next winter by themselves. During this time they will have made their own preparations for winter.
Skunks often die before they see out their first winter. So being born in early spring gives them a better chance of survival through maturity and experiences.
Females will find a good den around February and will stay there for at least 8 weeks until their kits are ready to emerge.
6. Reduce activity
Skunks are normally very active during the night. Yet in winter they need to reduce their activity to help them survive. This means they sleep a lot and forage a little.
The fall in daily temperature will tell skunks that they need to slow down. Once outdoor temperatures fall below 30 °F (-1 °C) skunks will spend as much time as possible in a state of torpor. If the temperature rises above this the skunks will forage for food, water and eliminate their waste. Yet they won’t spend long periods doing this as it can waste too much energy.
A skunk will lose around 30% of its body fat during winter, so they need to spend their time wisely. Each time they go searching for food they use up brown fat stores, and what they find likely won’t replace what they’ve lost.
Long periods of foraging, fleeing predators, and being caught in harsh weather conditions can all use up too much energy stores for skunks.
If the skunk doesn’t have enough energy stores to last during a prolonged cold spell, this will be fatal for them.
Do skunks migrate?
Wild Skunks do not migrate during the winter. Skunk tend to stay within a one-mile range most of their lives. Yet some skunk can extend that range up to a 5-mile radius. This will depend on food availability in the area. Skunk don’t need to migrate as they will adapt to winter conditions.
If the winter conditions become too severe they will simply go into a state of torpor in their dens.
Skunks may need to move if they are disturbed by predators. This may be a wild animal hunting for prey. It may also be due to human activity in the area disturbing their den. A skunk will try to stay as close as possible to a good food source.
How Cold Can Skunks Tolerate?
Skunk are wild animals that can adapt to cold winter conditions due to their dual layers of fur. Once the temperature drops below 30°F (-1°C), skunks will go into a state of torpor.
During this time the skunk doesn’t do anything other than sleeping and short periods of foraging. Being in cold weather wastes too much energy for a skunk.
A skunk’s normal body temperature is maintained at 102°F (38°C). When this drops below 89°F (31°C) the skunk will experience symptoms of hypothermia. A skunk is unlikely to survive if its body temperature reaches lower than 50°F (10°C).
To prevent his from happening a skunk needs to stay safe and warm in its winter den to survive. Buddying up with other skunks will reduce the risk of experiencing hypothermia.
Wild skunks don’t hibernate in the winter, yet they do make special adaptations all year round. The changes that skunks make to their diet, fur, habitat, and activity levels ensure they remain safe, warm, and have enough energy.
Winter brings with it many challenges such as lack of food, cold weather, and an increased risk of hungry predators. The most noticeable change is that skunk goes into a state of torpor. This allows the skunks to survive prolonged periods of time without having the brave the weather or find food. They just use their fat stores from over-eating in summer.
If the skunk can protect themselves from these elements then they will survive a winter in the wild.