Skunks Respond More Quickly to Owl Hoots Compared with Coyote Howls, Researchers Find

Published August 9, 2018

LONG BEACH, Calif. (Aug. 9, 2018) – Two Long Beach State University researchers found that skunks have a stronger reaction to the hooting of owls and are less responsive to the yipping of coyotes – findings that could have implications with protection pets from being skunked or attacked by coyotes.

Professor Ted Stankowich and recent alumna Kim Fisher conducted the field research at night – when skunks are most active – at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas between May and August of 2016 and 2017. During that time, the researchers recorded skunk responses to owl and coyote vocalizations. The scientists also played white noise and peregrine falcon calls as control measures, to ensure the skunks weren’t just responding to sound but to potential predators.

When researchers played owl hooting, skunks were quicker to look around and scurry away compared with when researchers played recordings of coyote howls. Scientists believe this is because owls are less responsive to being sprayed since they hunt from the air, where coyotes actually avoid skunks because of the noxious secretions.

“It suggests that because skunks are more vulnerable to predation from owls than they are to predation by coyotes, that they show greater fear responses toward owls than coyotes,” said Stankowich, faculty member and director of the university’s Mammal Lab. “What we think of this defense – this very effective, highly successful adaptation – is they’re actually still quite vulnerable to being killed by owls and they have to adjust their anti-predatory response to whatever predator they have around them.”

The skunks, however, may have a “dazzle effect” on their avian predators. The stripes on their back could disorient owls enough for them to miss their prey when swooping down to catch them, though the research focused mainly on skunk responses to noise.

The findings could have implications for pet owners trying to protect their dogs and cats from coyotes and stop them from being skunked. To drive away skunks in a backyard, a pet owner might play an owl recording, Fisher suggested. Coyotes might similarly scurry when confronted with the site of a skunk.

“We’re learning that coyotes avoid skunks,” Fisher said. “It could be a scarecrow situation. If you have a model of a skunk it could be that coyotes would stay out of your yard.”

The paper was made public online Wednesday, Aug. 8, in the journal Animal Behaviour. It will be published in the journal’s September print issue.

Copies of the paper, as well as coyote and owl vocalizations, can be made available to media upon request.


About the campus: Long Beach State University is a teaching-intensive, research-driven university committed to providing highly valued undergraduate and graduate degrees critical for success in the globally minded 21st century. Annually ranked among the best universities in the West and among the best values in the entire nation, the university’s eight colleges serve more than 37,500 students. The campus values and is recognized for rich educational opportunities provided by excellent faculty and staff, exceptional degree programs, diversity of its student body, fiduciary and administrative responsibility and the positive contributions faculty, staff, students and more than 300,000 alumni make on society.

About Animal Behaviour: The first issue of the journal Animal Behaviour was published in 1953. Today the peer-reviewed scientific journal is an international publication, published for the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour with the Animal Behavior Society.