Now and into February is the time we smell the first skunk or see their first tracks in the snow. I usually spot the first raccoon tracks a week or two earlier.

Skunks are carnivores, members of the weasel family. The striped skunk is a furry, glossy-black animal, the size of a house cat, with two distinct white stripes. Active mainly at night, they roam in early and later winter. The creature is more-or-less dormant during midwinter, although true hibernation does not occur. Skunks may bed together in groups of up to about eight or so in underground dens. Adults become less sluggish by the last of February, and by the end of March move about the landscape more often. In autumn, a skunk may wander a few miles to find a wintering place, but ordinarily its home range is within a half-mile radius.

Skunks prefer areas of mixed woodlands and fields. Their food during cold months consists of fruit, nuts, seeds, mice, shrews, carrion and garbage. More than half of their food during warmer weather is grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.

The skunk's interesting method of defense has given the animal an undeservedly bad reputation. It will spray only as a last resort. First, it will try to gallop away from an enemy and, if that fails, it will turn to face you or a dog or whatever while stomping its front feet. If this does not force retreat, the skunk will turn and spray. It can spray up to about 15 feet, usually in an arc to be sure to hit its target.

Jim Gilbert has taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.