Facts, Identification & Control
Skunks are experts at making a strong first impression. Known mostly for their odor, skunks are nocturnal and actually quite mild-tempered, spraying their infamous scent only when cornered, attacked, or defending their young. Additionally, skunks will give ample warning before spraying by growling, spitting, shaking their tails, and stamping on the ground.
Types of Skunks in North America
There are four species of skunks in North America:
- Striped Skunk
- Eastern Spotted Skunk
- Hooded Skunk
- Hog-Nosed Skunk
The striped skunk is by far the most prevalent skunk, known for the white stripes down its back. Its geographical range runs from southern Canada, throughout the United States, and into the northern parts of Mexico.
Spotted skunks are found throughout the U.S. and in Mexico but in fewer numbers. The hooded and hog-nosed skunks are much less common and native only to the Midwest, Southwest, and Mexico.
All skunks are small, averaging from 20 to 30 inches and weighing only about ten pounds. What most people don’t know is that skunks are actually quite helpful to farmers and gardeners as these black-and-white animals feed on pests such as beetles, grubs, and caterpillars.
What do skunks look like?
Skunks range in size and appearance, depending on the species. Fortunately, they have distinct markings and are easy to spot, making recognition and avoidance easier. They often are around 60 to 70 cm long and usually are black with white stripes or spots.
What Attracts Skunks to the Yard
Skunks seek out secluded places for their dens in places such as rock piles, creek or river banks, under porches or sheds, and sometimes in crawl spaces under a home’s floor. Window wells, open garages, and deep crevices near foundations also provide opportunities for shelter from the elements.
The loss of forested or woodland areas has forced skunks to live among us in greater numbers. Moreover, there are factors that make some yards more attractive than others. These include:
- Easy access to trash cans
- Cat and dog food and water left outside
- Bird feeders
- Elevated sheds and porches
- Crawl spaces
- Brush piles
These animals may dig holes in lawns while searching for insects, disturb chicken coops, or eat from gardens. However, skunks are best known for their unpleasant-smelling spray.
It’s rare for a person to get sprayed by a skunk unless it perceives you are threatening it with a DIY removal. What is more likely is that your pet will find itself on the losing end of a stinky battle. A skunk’s spray has worse side effects than the stink. If its spray gets into your eyes or those of your pet, it can cause serious damage as it contains sulfuric acid. The spray can also cause respiratory and other allergic reactions that could require medical attention.
Skunks are one of the four animals including foxes, raccoons, and bats that are carriers of rabies. Although you cannot contract rabies from skunk spray, this disease can be transmitted through a bite or scratch, and immediate medical treatment is required.
Always stay away from a skunk that is exhibiting erratic behaviors such as being active in the daytime, stumbling, or acting aggressively.
Skunks carry roundworms that can be spread to people and pets by the roundworm eggs that are shed in the skunk’s feces. Should a skunk be frequenting your yard, treat all skunk feces as though they were infected.
Leptospirosis can result from exposure to skunk urine. Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection with symptoms that include fever, muscle pain, and headaches. It can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
How to Keep Skunks Out of Your Yard
Skunks are docile and lazy animals looking to build their dens where there is easy access to food and water. By making your yard unattractive to them, they will seek food and housing elsewhere. Some suggestions involve:
- Cleaning your yard of brush and other debris.
- Feeding pets indoors and not leaving food meant for strays outdoors overnight.
- Installing motion-activated lights. Skunks have sensitive eyes and the bright light will not only irritate them, it will make the skunks think they are in danger because of the sudden change in environment.
- Adding mesh to the underside of porches and sheds to keep skunks out.
- Using discouraging scents like those of mothballs, onions, or citrus. Skunks have sensitive noses and do not like these scents.
- Keeping all trash tightly sealed.
Should a skunk make its home in your yard, it is best to call a professional who has the tools, the permits, and the know-how to humanely and safely remove it.
Skunk Habitats and Behavior
Skunks are quite adaptable and are able to thrive in different environments so long as food and water are readily available.
They are predominantly solitary creatures, making their dens in tree hollows, brush piles, or burrows abandoned by other animals. Their long, sharp claws allow them to dig (and climb) their own dens if there are no pre-made options available. Interestingly, skunks will gather in winter to share dens in the cold.
Skunks are omnivorous, and mostly nocturnal, foraging for food such as grasshoppers, mice, shrews, fruit, and a wide variety of insects at dusk. When they have kits, they begin to forage in daylight so they can spend the nighttime in their dens protecting their young from predators.
What do they eat?
Skunks can be both a blessing and a curse. They are mostly carnivorous and feed on rodents considered harmful to humans like moles, shrews, ground squirrels, rats, mice, and other small mammals. Also, they help keep insect populations low through their affinity for crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, and other types of insect larvae.
However, while helping control unwanted populations, skunks are known to do harm to property and domestic animal populations too. If available, skunks will feed on poultry and their eggs. Also, they eat garden vegetables and fruit, do damage to lawns when foraging for insects and damage beehives (eating adult and larval bees in the process).
Where do they live?
Skunks like digging under foundations to take refuge beneath homes and in other, less trafficked buildings. They also will burrow under low decks. Aside from their appearance, the foraging damage is an indicator of skunk activity. They may dig furrows in the ground or tear open trash bags.
Skunks are mostly active in warmer months. They don’t actually hibernate but will remain inactive in their dens for days to weeks during extreme cold. They are nocturnal.
Skunk Mating Season
Skunks mate in winter, between January and March. The gestation period is about two months after which they have litters consisting of four to six kits. Kits will remain in the den for about six to eight weeks after which they’ll start foraging with their mother. At ten weeks, kits are able to spray and after nine to twelve months are sexually mature.