To most people, skunks are dumb, ill-tempered creatures best known as stinky roadkill, and good riddance. That’s unfortunate, because as someone once said, if the animals visiting your yard were characters from the well-known book Gone with the Wind, the Striped Skunk would be Melanie Hamilton, the gentle, shy and patient friend of Scarlett O’Hara.
Skunks, in truth, are perfectly happy to quietly go about their serious business of survival and let the Scarlet O’Haras of wildlife hold the limelight. Like Melanie, skunks will defend themselves if they must, but only then. Should you meet them face-to-face, just back away and they’ll placidly waddle off, with no hard feelings. Small and slow-moving, their signature scent is their only means of defense against predators, but they prefer not to use it.
Fortunately, most humans never encounter a skunk, and their foraging habits are beneficial in our yards and gardens. They feed on pests, such as grubs, snails, and slugs, in addition to beetles, wasps, ants, millipedes, centipedes, small snakes, mice, rats, and other populations we prefer to keep under control.
The oldest skunk fossil, found in Germany, dates to 11 to 12 million years ago in the Miocene Epoch, but genetic evidence suggests they originated around 30 to 40 million years ago. Scientists think they crossed from Siberia into North America during a time when the Bering land bridge was exposed. The oldest skunk fossil found in N.A., a skull believed to be 9.2 to 9.3 million years old, was found in the Mojave Desert’s Red Rock Canyon.
Skunks were initially classified in the weasel family, but recent genetic analysis has placed them in a family of their own, Mephitidae, along with stink badgers. Today there are four species of skunks in North America. The Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis, is the most common.
When German naturalist I.C.D. von Schreber assigned the Striped Skunk its name in 1776, he chose the word mephitis for both its genus and species, apparently meaning it to have the power of two! It would be hard for anyone who has smelled skunk spray to argue against his reasoning because Mephitis (muh-FIE-tiss) is Latin for “a noxious, pestilential, or foul exhalation from the earth.”¹
Striped Skunks are 13 to 20 inches long (33 to 50.8 cm), plus a tail length of 7 to 10 inches (17.8 to 25.4 cm). Males are slightly larger than females. Their weight ranges from 2.5 to 15 pounds (1.1 to 6.8 kg) and averages 6 to 8 pounds (2.7 to 3.6 kg).
They have a triangle-shaped head with a black nose and short ears. Their hair is black, with two broad, white stripes running from the back of their head to the tail. A thin white stripe runs from their forehead to their nose. Their tail is a bushy mixture of black and white hairs. The stark contrast between their white stripes and black body is very noticeable and sends a warning to predators to stay away.
Their legs are short, and their feet have long, curved and very strong claws — especially the front ones, which are used for digging.
Ewww, the stench!
It’s effective, isn’t it? Their noxious spray is a mix of seven sulfur-containing compounds called thiols and thioacetates, meant to drive predators away. Humans can detect it in a concentration of 10 parts per billion, the reason we can smell it from long distances away. The spray comes from two anal glands, one on each side of their anus; they can spray it separately or simultaneously as a defense.
Skunks are best known for their spray, but they use it only as a last resort. First of all, they’re docile by nature and prefer to avoid confrontation. Secondly, their store of fluid is limited — they carry around only about a tablespoonful (14.8 mm) divided between the two glands. That’s enough for five or six squirts, but it’s their only means of defense. It takes about 10 days for their body to replace the load completely, so they’re loath to lose even a small amount unnecessarily.
Given a chance, skunks will warn predators and humans away before blasting them. They’ll growl and hiss, stomp their feet, arch their back, chatter their teeth and pretend to charge forward.² They may do this several times. If all that fails, they’ll turn around and fire away. The result is awful: The liquid causes eyes to sting fiercely, temporarily blinding the foe (human or otherwise). It burns the skin and might even cause nausea. The odor clings to everything it touches, refusing to be rubbed or licked off. After that, a critter won’t intentionally harass a skunk ever again!
Skunks have excellent smelling and hearing, but rather poor vision, with objects going fuzzy about 10 feet away (3 m). This may be the reason so many are struck by autos; they just don’t see them until too late.
Skunks are smart. That’s what owners of pet skunks say, anyway, and research has shown they learn quickly and have a good memory. Pet owners describe them as determined, curious, and so ingenious that baby-locks sometimes have to be put on cupboards and drawers to keep them out. Some can even open refrigerators. They can be litter box trained, they’re friendly, playful, bond with their human companions and like to cuddle. Skunk playing with a puppy.
Striped Skunks are generally pretty quiet, but they do make a few sounds. They hiss, growl, squeal and make other noises that are hard to describe. Listen: Aggression sounds Mother and baby sounds
Skunks are nocturnal (active at night) and typically rest in their dens in the daytime. But, not always — it isn’t uncommon for them to go out to forage; especially nursing mothers, who are extra hungry. And, their youngsters often come out to play. (In this case, with a human: Playful wild baby skunk)
Skunks are solitary, except during mating season, which is late-winter to early spring. Males are particularly active during this time, as they go in search of females. Males sometimes fight over females, but they don’t use their spray.
Skunks can climb, but not well. They climb fences and other obstacles, but they don’t climb trees. They would rather walk than run, but their short legs can move them in bursts of 4 to 6 miles per hour (6.4 to 9.7 km), if necessary. They also can swim: Swimming baby skunk gets rescued
In the fall, skunks begin putting on as much fat as they can, which is especially important in the cold northern regions. Extra fat allows them to stay in their dens for days or weeks at a time, only occasionally waking up to go foraging.
They “sleep” in a state called torpor, where their body temperature and metabolism rate go down, but it isn’t as deep as true hibernation. Striped Skunks reach the lowest torpid body temperature of all carnivores, dropping down from 98.6 to 78.8 degrees F (37 to 26 C).
Striped Skunks can breed at 10 months of age. Mating season is late-winter to early spring. Males go their own way afterward and don’t participate in the rearing of their offspring.
Typically five to seven babies (called kits or cubs) are born about two months later, although 10 are possible. The kits, weighing only about an ounce (28 gm), are blind, deaf and scantily furred, with white stripes just barely detectable. Only four weeks later, their scent glands are functional, at just about the same time they open their eyes.
At about six weeks they start hunting with their mother. She teaches them all her skills: how to dig up grubs and to extract larvae from logs, how to raid beehives, locate rodents, root around for eggs and insects, sample through garbage for edibles, and more.
Sometimes mothers can be seen with their kits waddling single file behind, small identical versions of herself. They look adorable, but this is one time a skunk is not to be messed with — very protective of her young, the mother might forego her usual warning and quickly spray.
The playful and curious kits are almost full grown at eight weeks. They’re fully weaned and independent by then, but often stay with their mother over the winter. In the spring, males usually wander to a different area, while females tend to remain in close proximity to their mother. Dispersed skunks from the same litter who later meet up are said to be overjoyed at seeing each other again.
The mother is capable of breeding a second time in the same year but usually doesn’t, unless her first pregnancy failed.
Striped Skunks use dens year-round. Their dens are in well-protected places, such as culverts, rock piles, woodpiles, in or under hollow logs, under porches and sheds, in crawl spaces or drainpipes. They often use abandoned dens of groundhogs and other animals.
They dig a den only if they must. Their dens may have as many as five entrances. Nesting materials include soft twigs, grasses, and leaves. Skunks keep themselves clean and are careful not to use their spray within their den. Still, their dens have a slightly skunky smell because skunks always carry a slight odor.
Skunks are omnivores and opportunists — they eat whatever they find or can catch. They help in keeping mice, rats, and shrews under control, as well as nuisance insects — grubs, grasshoppers, bees, wasps, crickets, and caterpillars. They love a meal of big, juicy spiders. Yum! They also feed on fish, frogs, salamanders, turtle eggs, eggs of ground-nesting birds, young rabbits, small snakes, leftover pet food, and birdseed.
They might top off a meal with grasses or nuts. A fruit salad in season is another delight, made up of fallen, spoiling fruit, such as blackberries, blueberries, and cherries.
Habitat and range
Striped Skunks range from southern Canada, across the U.S., and down to the border of Mexico. They particularly like open areas or open areas bordered by forests, but they also inhabit grasslands and agricultural lands. Urban yards are a perfect habitat for them — clipped lawns dotted with islands of shade trees and shrubs.
Short, stubby legs make them ill-equipped physically for a lot of traveling. Their home range may be up to 1-1/2 square miles (2.4 km), or as small as 20 acres (8.1 ha). A yard offering plentiful food may reduce their range even more — why stray too far away from a good thing?
The average lifespan of the Striped Skunk is about two years in the wild. Many die of starvation in their first winter, and disease also takes a toll. In captivity, they can live up to 15 years.
The next time you see a skunk lying dead on the road, you’ll know that it isn’t better off dead. If it’s a mother raising offspring, her young may starve to death or have now lost their teacher of life-skills. To her litter mates, she’s a lost playmate who squealed with joy whenever they reunited. And nature has lost a significant predator.
Skunks have few predators, except human ones driving vehicles (the most common cause of their death) and those who intentionally kill them as pests. Their only other serious predator is the Great-horned Owl, which seems impervious to their foul odor, but there’s also some predation from Mountain Lions, foxes and hawks.
Striped Skunks and rabies
Rabies is a deadly disease and a serious matter, and skunks are more prone than some other mammals to get it. Still, only 1,365 skunks across the country were found infected with rabies in 2015, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The statistic illustrates that the percentage of infected skunks is quite low within a population of animals that inhabits the entire country.
Don’t assume a skunk seen in daytime is rabid; it almost certainly isn’t, unless it’s displaying abnormal behavior, such as circling, acting aggressive and having balance issues.
²If you should meet a skunk face-to-face, it will stomp its front feet, fluff its fur and tail and take short lunges at you. It may hiss or growl. Back away slowly and quietly. If it turns his back on you and starts raising it tail, you should turn your back on it and run fast as you can!
*Top image: Torli Roberts / FreeImages.com; PD