Skunks, also called “polecats”, are intelligent, usually good natured mammals that benefit humans by eating insects and rodents many regard as pests. The skunk family is composed of 11 species, 9 of which are found in the Western Hemisphere.
While skunks will not intentionally trouble people, many people consider skunks to be a nuisance pest because of their defensive scent, potential for transmitting disease and parasites, or when they damage property.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE SKUNKS?
- Skunks are nocturnal and therefore not often seen during the day.
- Signs of skunks include their tracks, droppings, and evidence of their digging.
- Skunk tracks look like domestic cat prints except for long claws on the front feet and five toes, not four. Skunk tracks are also usually staggered, unlike domestic cat prints, which are often on top of each other.
- Striped skunk droppings look like those of domestic cats and are ½ inch in diameter, 2 to 4 inches long, and usually have blunt ends. They are typically found where skunks feed, have been digging, or near a den.
- A persistent, musky odor and freshly excavated soil next to a hole, under a building, or near a woodpile can indicate the presence of a skunk.
- Skunks often feed on grubs and will dig little cone shaped holes in a lawn to find them.
- Skunk dens can be located in rock crevices, fallen hollow trees, or drainpipes and culverts. Skunks will take over old, abandoned burrows of other animals, or dig their own dens under decks, porches, and concrete slabs.
WHY DO SKUNKS SPRAY?
- Skunks are generally mild-mannered animals and will not spray unless surprised, cornered, harmed, or to protect their young.
- When threatened, a skunk can emit its pungent fluid either in a fine mist or in a stream from a nozzle-like duct that protrudes from their anus.
- Skunks aim the spray with highly coordinated muscle control and can accurately hit their targets 12’ – 18’ away.
- Before spraying, a threatened skunk will stomp its front feet and, if the threat continues, will raise its tail and make short charges in the direction of the threat. Finally, the skunk will turn its tail end toward the perceived threat and if it continues to feel threatened, will then spray.
- If you encounter a skunk, do not make any movement that could be mistaken by the skunk as threatening, including moving quickly, making loud noises, or approaching it. It is best to quietly and slowly retreat from any skunk.
ARE SKUNKS DANGEROUS?
- Yes. Despite their gentle manner, skunks can carry contagious diseases, viruses and parasites that can be transmitted to humans and/or pets through a bite.
- In Minnesota, rabies is more common in striped skunks than in any other mammal.
- In addition to rabies, serious illnesses that can be spread by skunks include:
- canine distemper
- canine hepatitis
- intestinal roundworm (Baylisascaris columnaris)
- Although skunks are nocturnal, they sometimes look for food by day—particularly in the spring when they have young and may be extra hungry. Therefore, do not be concerned if you see an adult skunk in the daytime unless they are also showing abnormal behavior, including:
- Limb paralysis
- Boldness or unprovoked aggression
- Unsteady or staggering gait
- Uncharacteristic tameness
- Drooling, and/or foaming at the mouth
- Never approach a skunk that appears to be ill, is overly friendly, or approaches you -- call animal control immediately for assistance.
- If bitten or scratched by a skunk, immediately scrub the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Flush the wound liberally with clean tap water.
- Contact your physician and the local health department immediately.
- If your pet is bitten, follow the same cleansing procedure and contact your veterinarian to ensure that your pet has proper protection.
WHAT DO SKUNKS LOOK LIKE?
- The striped skunk is a medium-sized mammal approximately the size of a domestic cat; ranging in length from 22 to 32 inches and a bushy tail that is 8” – 11” in length and weights between 3 and 10 pounds.
- The striped skunk’s fur is glossy black with a thin white stripe between its eyes and two stripes running the length of its back.
- The extremely rare eastern spotted skunk is smaller (18”-22” in length) and has a more complex pattern of white spots or broken stripes than the more common striped skunk.
- Skunks have large feet and well-developed claws.
WHY ARE SKUNKS IN MY YARD?
- Skunks are attracted by a ready supply of food and convenient denning sites.
- Preventive measures focus on removing attractants such as securely covering trash cans, feeding pets indoors, covering window wells and openings under concrete slabs, porches, sheds, and crawl spaces.
- If skunks are digging for grubs in your lawn, take steps to eliminate grubs such as changing your watering habits.
WHAT DO SKUNKS EAT?
- Skunks are omnivorous and will eat mice, moles, voles, rats, birds and their eggs, grubs, grasshoppers, wasps, bees, crickets, beetles, and beetle larvae.
- Skunks also eat fruits, nuts, and garden crops,
- They have been known to kill roosting chickens.
- Skunks scavenge on garbage, birdseed, pet food, and roadkill; which is why they too are often hit by cars.
WHAT IS THE LIFECYCLE OF SKUNKS?
- Skunks remain solitary except during breeding season.
- Striped skunks mate between February and March.
- Spotted skunks breed between September and October, but because of delayed implantation, the fertilized eggs do not attach to the uterine wall for a period of time after breeding.
- Male skunks mate with many females, but a female skunk will only breed once each year with one male.
- After mating, the male is driven off.
- From the end of April through early June, after a 60 day gestation, female skunks give birth to 4-6 naked, blind, and helpless young called “kits”. (Litters of up to 10 are possible.)
- Though new born skunks are covered only in light fuzz, the distinguishing white stripes can be easily seen on the black skin.
- At around 4 weeks, the kits’ eyes open.
- Weaning takes place around 60 days of age; at which time the mother leads her young out of the den to forage and hunt. Although nocturnal, mother and babies may be seen out any time of the day.
- By three months old, the young skunks are nearly full-grown and completely independent.
- Skunks do not hibernate in winter; instead, they lower their body temperature and become inactive.
- While they don't hibernate, skunks may sleep for a month or more at a time.
- Skunks survive the winter by living off their accumulated fat reserves which can be up to 20 percent of their body weight.
- During the cold winter months dens will be deeper underground than summer dens and skunks will plug the entrance with leaves and grass to insulate them from the cold.
- If the Mid-winter weather is mild, skunks will become active, venturing out of their dens to forage for food.
- Striped skunk families often remain together throughout the winter. However, skunks may also den alone, with other skunks (sometimes 8-10 other females), or even with raccoons, rabbits, and other mammals.
- Striped skunks can live 3-4 years in the wild.
9 INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT SKUNKS:
- The skunk odor can be detected over a mile away and left untreated will persist for weeks.
- Even three-week-old baby skunks have the ability to spray.
- A striped skunk’s ducts have enough liquid to spray 5-8 times. It takes the skunk approximately a week to manufacture its defense liquid.
- Young skunks are more likely to spray than more experienced skunks
- Contrary to popular myth, a striped skunk cannot spray while it is facing you.
- Skunks are nomadic; without a good food source skunks will likely move on.
- Skunks forage for food along established routes and have a range of less than 2 miles from its den.
- Skunks are poor runners and cannot climb, so they forage almost entirely on the ground.
- Because owls and birds of prey have a poor sense of smell, they are the most common natural predators of skunks.