- All members of the Mustelid family, which the striped skunk belongs to along with the weasel, mink, ferret, marten, and otter, have the ability to produce a strong odor from scent glands.
- Skunk's scientific name, Mephitis mephitis, means "bad odor," and the skunk is the only mustelid that can use its scent as a defense mechanism against predators.
- Skunks generally use abandoned burrows as denning sites, but they may also dig their own burrows, which can reach 6-20 feet in length and 3-4 feet in depth.
- Skunks are classified as "furbearers," but special permits are required by most regions for trapping skunks and harvesting their pelts.
- Aware of the repulsiveness of its scent, the skunk will not spray unless it feels threatened; they also avoid spraying in their own denning places.
- Although they spend the entire winter in dens, skunks do not hibernate and may emerge outside during warm spells.
Measuring 46-81 centimeters and weighing between 0.7 to 6.3 kilograms, the striped skunk is easily recognizable by the pattern and color of their fur. The largest part of their body is covered in thick, black fur, with a narrow white stripe starting at the middle of their forehead, splitting into two stripes along their back, and continuing along each side to the base of their tail. The long, bushy tail is mostly black, but in some skunks the quantity of white hairs can be larger. There is another smaller white stripe running along the top of their forehead to the tip of their snout. The striped skunk’s head is rather small and triangular-shaped, with small, black eyes, short ears, and a pointed snout. The sharp teeth and claws allow them to easily dig up soil in search for food and tear apart logs for shelter.
Diet, Behavior, and Habits
Skunks are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will adapt their diet as seasons change. In spring, they turn omnivorous, consuming mostly mice, snakes, grubs, and larvae, while insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, and bees make up the largest part of their summer diet, along with reptiles and other invertebrates such as worms, crayfish, and arthropods. Fruits, nuts, and garden crops are also a valuable food for skunks. In winter, when food is scarce, they get their nutrients from voles, shrews, rabbits, chipmunks, and other small mammals. Those that live in urban areas feed on garbage, pet food, and birdseed.
The skunk prefers to live in a wide range of open habitats including grasslands, forests, and plains, but also farming areas and suburban neighborhoods. Since they prefer doing as little digging as possible, they end up nesting in underground dens abandoned by foxes, woodchucks, ground squirrels, coyotes, and other animals. If dens aren’t available, they will gladly use hollow logs and wood piles to make themselves a shelter for resting, hiding, giving birth, and raising their young. It’s also not uncommon for skunks to take residence below porches, decks, concrete slabs, drainpipes, and culverts. During extreme temperatures, they insulate their dens to protect them from the cold; they don’t hibernate.
Mating season is usually between late February and early March. After a gestation period of approximately 65 days, females give birth to an average of six blind and helpless kits. Their eyes will open in about 3 weeks, and by 4 weeks of age, they are able to use their scent glands to expel musk. After another month, they are ready to accompany their mother when she goes out hunting. They remain with their mother until autumn and then separate.
Skunks are solitary animals, and they only come together during the breeding season and winter, when cold temperatures may force them to den in the same place. However, despite their non-aggressive nature – many people see them as friendly and docile – they are known for their self-defense mechanisms. Skunks, as well as other members of the Mephididae family, have enlarged anal scent glands which, although aren’t larger than a grape, they secrete a foul stench that’s powerful enough to be scented almost one kilometer away. The aim of a skunk’s spray is its attacker’s eyes, which will immediately redden, swallow, and even become temporarily blind. However, skunks do not spray their musk haphazardly; they first warn their target by arching their back, raising their tail, and stomping the ground with their legs, waiting for the danger to go away. If they still feel threatened, they will bend their bodies while still facing the intruder and spray.
- They are vectors of disease. They are known carriers of fleas, lice, mites, and ticks, but also of more dangerous pathogens associated with rabies, canine distemper, leptospirosis, pleuritis, tularemia, murine typhus, Chagas’ disease, and parvovirus.
- They damage turf, golf courses, and gardens by tearing and rolling big chunks of sod in search for grubs and insects
- They prey upon nesting waterfowl, domestic poultry, game birds, and their eggs
- They feed on agricultural crops, especially corn, and other vegetables and fruit
- They damage beehives by eating adult and larval bees
Their presence on a property is indicated by:
. Skunk tracks are similar in size and appearance to those of domestic cats (except they show five instead of four toes) and can be found easily in mud, dirt, and snow.
. Droppings are usually found near their feeding or denning site; they are similar in size to those of domestic cats and usually have blunt ends
. Grass-free depressions under wood piles and grassy areas are usually indicative of skunk presence.
Management and Control
. Decrease the attractiveness of your property to skunks by cutting back overgrown shrubbery, removing brush piles, and by stacking lumber and firewood properly. Reduce the availability of fruit by securing trash in tightly fitting bins and by placing food items and scraps in places other than compost bins. They are also attracted to mice and rats inside sheds and garages, so you may have to set up a rodent control program to eliminate this attraction, as well. The same applies when trying to limit the damage to lawns: to prevent skunks from digging up the soil in the first place, eliminate grubs and other insects with an appropriate insecticide. Schedule regular cleaning and maintenance of your house and garden and eliminate all debris and materials that may provide suitable shelter for skunks.
. Prevent skunks from denning under your house, porch, deck, shed, or garage by sealing off all foundation openings. Use wire mesh, concrete, and sheet metal to enclose areas where skunks may gain access by digging. Make sure your poultry coops are properly fenced, as well, to prevent skunks from eating birds and their eggs. To exclude skunks from window wells and other such pits, use mesh fencing and fiberglass domes. Elevate beehives on 3 feet
high stands and install aluminum guards around the base to prevent skunks from climbing up.
. The professional (and most effective way) of managing and controlling skunks on your property is live trapping using traps placed near the entrance to their dens. Plastic box traps are considered more effective than wire traps because they are completely enclosed, thus decreasing the risk of getting sprayed by the trapped animal.
- Don’t feed skunks, as artificially skunks may lose their natural fear of humans and cause problems for you and your family
- Seal access to denning sites by installing barriers they cannot penetrate
- Enclose poultry in secured coops at night
- Feed pets inside and make sure they don’t enter conflicts with skunks
- Use pesticide to get rid of grubs and other insects that may cause skunks to damage lawns and gardens