The body of the skunk is mostly black, but a thin white stripe down the center of the face broadens across the top of the head and nape, then forks back from the shoulder to form two white stripes almost to the tail. The tail is usually black, but some white hairs may show. The typical striped pattern varies with each individual, with some skunks showing no white and others having a single stripe down the back or a combination of both stripes.
General Biology, Habitat, Behavior and Reproduction
The most recent taxonomy places skunks in their own family (Mephitidae). Skunks like to be left alone, and when not bothered will go their own way without causing trouble. But when danger approaches, the animal may stamp its front feet rapidly or even walk on its front feet with its tail held high. From this point on the skunk lives up to its scientific name Mephitis: this means “bad odor.”
Skunks have scent glands located near the anal opening which are used for protection. By lifting their tail over their arched back and contracting the muscles near the gland, a skunk can spray its yellowish, musky fluid accurately as far as 12 feet and somewhat less accurately for 20 feet. Warning signals such as rapid stamping of the front feet and arched back or lifted tail are signs that a skunk is ready to spray. Skunks will usually not spray unless they are very frightened, upset or shot.
Skunks inhabit a variety of habitat types, especially mixed woodlands that are close to open fields or agricultural lands and beaches. Though mostly nocturnal, they may be seen foraging at dawn or dusk, in a heavy mid-morning fog and occasionally even in late afternoon. They search for food along woodland-field borders, fence rows, tide lines, marshes, and stream edges. Although they can swim, they prefer to stay out of the water.
In spring, skunks (omnivores) feed on mice, rats, snakes, and insect larvae. In summer, grasshoppers, crickets, earthworms, and beetles are eaten. As insects become scarce in the fall, they eat a variety of small mammals including mice, shrews, moles, grubs, carrion, mushrooms and chipmunks. Apples, raspberries, black berries and other fruit are also important in their diets. In more wooded areas and beaches, skunks will eat eggs and nestlings of ground-nesting birds and poultry. Where available, they will also feed on frogs and crayfish. Because they have such a varied diet, their chance of surviving during times of food shortages is high.
Skunks are often attracted to rodents living in barns, crawl spaces, sheds, and garages. Rodent control programs may be necessary to eliminate this attraction.
In most instances, food from uncovered garbage containers or dog and cat dishes or birdfeeders attracts skunks to buildings, decks, and barns. The use of secure lids on containers will usually solve this problem. In addition to 2-inch coop and poultry yard fencing, a section of ¼ inch hardware cloth buried 1-foot deep with the bottom 12 inches bent outward from the yard or building and 1-foot above the surface, secured to yard fencing or building, will keep skunks out.
Place beehives on stands 3 feet high. It may be necessary to install aluminum guards around the bases of hives if skunks attempt to climb the supports. Skunks, however, normally do not climb.
Skunks generally make their dens in abandoned woodchuck holes, in rock piles, under buildings and woodpiles. Skunks are dormant for about a month during the coldest part of winter. Skunks are not true hibernators. These animals sleep intermittently when the temperature reaches 15 degrees living on stored body fat, but are inactive for only a few weeks. They are nocturnal in habit, rather slow moving and deliberate, are not sociable and have great confidence in defending themselves against other animals. Sometimes eight or ten females will den together in cold weather. Males tend to be solitary. The normal home range of the skunk is ½ to 2 miles (2 to 5 km) in diameter. During the breeding season, a male may travel 4 to 5 (6.4 to 8 km) each night.
Adult skunks begin breeding in late February. Yearling females (born in the preceding year) mate in late March. Gestation usually lasts 7 to 10 weeks. Older females bear young during the first part of May, while yearling females bear young in early June. There is usually only 1 litter annually. Litters commonly consist of 4 to 6 young, but may have from 2 to 16. Younger or smaller females have smaller litters than older or larger females. After the young are born, the female skunk takes complete charge of rearing them. When it is necessary to move them she will carry them by the nape of the neck, the same way a cat carries her offspring. At about seven weeks of age, the female takes the young on their first hunting expedition. In the fall, the family breaks up and each goes its own way. Both sexes mature by the following spring. The age potential for a skunk is about 10 years, but few live beyond 3 years in the wild.
Skunks may disrupt beehives and dig up lawns, gardens, golf courses, and meadows in search of beetle larvae and other grubs. The diggings appear as patches of upturned earth and turf, 1 to 4 inches across, funnel-like in appearance, and usually 1 to 4 inches in depth. Since other animals such as moles, squirrels and dogs dig up lawns, it should be determined precisely which species is causing the problem before control measures are attempted. Skunks are generally beneficial; therefore, control should, where possible, be preventive rather than destructive (killing the animal). Skunks that den under the building may become a nuisance. Although they rarely spray in their dens, they do emit a musky odor, which may be objectionable. When skunks are out, openings in foundations can be sealed off using ¼ -inch hardware cloth, sheet metal, concrete, or other suitable materials. If skunk activity is suspected, flour or ground limestone can be sprinkled in front of the opening and checked after dark for tracks. This may have to be repeated for more than one day. If there are signs of activity, the direction of the tracks will indicate if the skunk has left the den. The opening can then be sealed with hardware cloth. Caution should be used when closing entrances between late April and mid-August to avoid trapping young inside. When skunks enter garages, cellars or houses, doors should be left open to allow the skunk to leave. If the skunk does not leave on its own, a live trap can be used with caution. Live trapping of problem skunks is covered under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 131 Section 190 +321 and Section 37 CMR 2.15.
It is not legal to release a trapped skunk in the M. F. Correllus State Forest or any other Martha’s Vineyard conservation property. It is not legal to release a trapped skunk on any property other than that where the animal was originally trapped. It does little good to either the animals or to humans to merely shift damage from place to place. It is illegal to poison skunks.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, in accordance with provision of G.L.C.131s.4 and 321 CMR2.14, has licensed Problem Animal Control Agents. See www.masswildlife.org for current PAC listing.
The purpose of such licensing is to provide a lawful procedure for the control of vertebrate animals which are causing damage to property or interfering with the reasonable use of such property. No person, unless otherwise allowed by law, may control problem animals without such licensing from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Contact the following with any questions you might have:
MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, www.masswildlife.org. 508-792-7270
Environmental Police: Sergeant Mike Camire
PAC Agent Walter Wlodyka: Skunk & Raccoon Removal, 508-645-9959.
PAC Agent T.J. Hegarty: Skunks Removed, Raccoons Too, 508-693-4189.
The skunk, in addition to being one of our most interesting animals, does much more good than harm.
To confront a skunk odor problem:
Wash the contaminated (dog, clothes, etc.) in the following solution:
1 box of baking soda: in 2 gallons of water. Stir well in order to dissolve the baking soda. Add ½ cup of dish detergent stirring gently so as not to raise a lot of foam. Add 8 ounces of 3% (drugstore-grade) hydrogen peroxide. Add the peroxide last and stir the solution gently. Rub on pure vanilla extract.
Why it works?
The peroxide oxidizes the mercaptans (smelly stuff) and the baking soda/detergent combination washes away the water-soluble reaction products.
(Courtesy Dr. Hoffman, Professor of Chemistry, University of Nebraska)
Note: This is one of many recipes. If you have a better one please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Revised: September 29, 2004
Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage: 1994, Cooperative Extension Division. Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources: University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
United States Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Wildlife Services.
Great Plains: Agricultural Council Wildlife Committee.
James E. Knight, Extension Wildlife Specialist. Animal and Range Sciences: Montana State University, Bozeman, MT.
University of Massachusetts, United States Department of Agriculture and County Extension Services Cooperating: Publications L-341 and L-334.
Truman’s Scientific Guide to Pest Control Operations, fifth edition. A Purdue: University/Advanstar Communications Project.
Jim Cardoza, Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
Walter Wlodyka, Skunk & Raccoon Removal.
T.J. Hegarty: Vineyard Field Notes, Skunks Removed, Raccoons too.