Skunks are mammals in the family Mephitidae. The animals are known for their ability to spray a liquid with a strong unpleasant smell. Different species of skunk vary in appearance from black-and-white to brown, cream or ginger colored, but all have warning coloration. Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material and changing their diets as the seasons change. They eat insects and larvae, earthworms, grubs, rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, moles and eggs. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi and nuts.
Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this behavior to their young.
In settled areas, skunks also seek garbage left by humans. Less often, skunks may be found acting as scavengers, eating bird and rodent carcasses left by cats or other animals. Pet owners, particularly those of cats, may experience a skunk finding its way into a garage or basement where pet food is kept. Skunks commonly dig holes in lawns in search of grubs and worms.
There are 12 species in the Mephitidae family, categorized into 4 general:
- Conepatus (hog-nosed skunks);
- Mephitis (hooded skunks and striped skunks);
- Mydaus (stink badgers);
- Spilogale (spotted skunks).
The most common species in North America is the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), while the least common are the hooded skunk (Mephitis macroura) and the hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus leuconotus).
Skunks are crepuscular and solitary animals when not breeding, though in the colder parts of their range, they may gather in communal dens for warmth. During the day, they shelter in burrows which they can dig with their powerful front claws. Males and females occupy overlapping home ranges through the greater part of the year, typically 2 to 4 km2 (0.77 to 1.54 sq mi) for females and up to 20 km2 (7.7 sq mi) for males.
Skunks are not true hibernators in the winter, but do den up for extended periods of time. However, they remain generally inactive and feed rarely, going through a dormant stage. Over winter, multiple females (as many as 12) huddle together; males often den alone. Often, the same winter den is repeatedly used.
Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision, being unable to see objects more than about 3 m (10 ft) away, making them vulnerable to death by road traffic. They are short-lived; their lifespan in the wild can reach seven years, with most living only up to a year. In captivity, they may live for up to 10 years.
The skunk’s most memorable trait is its smell. When frightened, skunks will shoot a smelly, oily substance from a gland underneath their tails with a range of up to 10 feet (3 meters. The scent from this gland can last for days, but isn’t harmful. Most animals leave skunks alone unless they can’t find other prey. Before spraying, a spotted skunk will do a handstand on its front paws and aim its tail without taking its eyes off its attacker.
It is important to remember that most skunks are not aggressive and won’t harm humans unless they are threatened.
Skunks are nocturnal and forage for food while most animals and humans sleep. Though you typically see skunks by themselves, they gather to mate. A group of skunks are called a surfeit.
Striped skunks are native to North America, and can be found in Northern Mexico, throughout the United States, and as far north as Central Canada. Other species of skunks, such as the spotted skunk and the hog-nosed skunk, can be found further south, ranging from Canada to Central and South America. Stink badgers, which resemble the hog-nosed skunk, are strictly found in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The striped skunk can be found throughout Florida, except for in the Keys.
Striped skunks show little discrimination when it comes to finding a place to live and can be found in both rural and urban areas, as long as a water source is within two miles. Skunks usually do not venture out farther than two miles from their homes, and usually stay in a range between half a mile and one and a half miles from their dens. These animals also require an ample supply of food and cover. Skunks easily adapt to many different habitats such as woods, grasslands, brush, open prairies, and developed areas.
Skunks will either use their long claws to dig a den or they will reside in an abandoned den built by another animal, such as a fox or a woodchuck. Other aboveground places a skunk will call home are hollow logs, woodpiles, or in brushes. It is also common for skunks to build their homes underneath porches, houses, garages, and buildings, as they have a high tolerance for humans. A skunk will use grass, leaves, and sometimes hay to line its home when it lives in a den. A skunk’s burrow often contains one to three chambers, or rooms, and there may be up to five entrances, each about eight inches in diameter.
As omnivores, skunks maintain a diet comprised of both plant and animal matter. They consume more of certain foodstuffs depending on the season and availability. For example, skunks favor insects, like grasshoppers, bees, beetles, beetle larvae, and crickets, and target these food sources during the spring and summer when the pests are most plentiful.
During the winter months, skunks scavenge for fruits, nuts, garden plants, garbage, bird seed, and pet food. Mice are also popular skunk meals during the fall and winter. Rats, rabbits, and other small mammals are eaten as a last resort, and skunks occasionally kill poultry to eat their eggs.
Female skunks give birth every year. Their gestation period often lasts around two months and they give birth to two to 10 offspring at a time.
Baby skunks are called kits. Kits are blind when born, since their eyes are sealed shut until around the age of 3 weeks, according to the San Diego Zoo. They are weaned at 2 months old. After they are weaned, they leave the den and at to 10 to 12 months old they are ready to have their own kits.
Skunks have very short lives and often live only around three years. In captivity they can live a little longer, usually seven to eight years.
Skunks as pests
Skunks are usually classified as a pest species due to their odor, and occasionally, digging. The most common complaints include the following:
- Skunk is living under deck or porch
- Skunk has sprayed in the vicinity
- Skunk has sprayed a pet dog
- Skunks are digging holes in yard
- Skunks fell down window well/basement
For these reasons, many people wish to have this nuisance animal trapped and removed. However, trappers must take care to avoid being sprayed.
One of the largest concerns is the odor. Skunks very frequently inhabit human dwellings. They’ll live under sheds, porches, decks, etc. Read about skunk under a shed, porch, or deck. They may discharge or scent mark these areas, creating an unpleasant odor. Many people don’t like skunks on the property, because of fear of stumbling across one and getting sprayed. There’s also the matter of pet/skunk conflict. Skunks often fall down basement window wells as well. In addition, they can actually do a lot of digging, and damage a lawn.
Skunks are frequent carriers of rabies. I don’t know if they carry any other diseases that humans or pets can get. Here is a complete analysis of skunk diseases.
You’ve nurtured your lawn all summer long, and the effort shows. It’s in glorious condition, so obviously now after all your hard work you can get lawn damage from skunks and raccoons. This is the time of year when skunks and raccoons are busy tearing up lawns looking for a grubs. The damage that they can cause to a lawn can be extensive as they search for a tasty meal. I am not sure how they know that grubs are present, but it may be that they can smell the grubs themselves or the fecal matter that they produce… yum. To get rid of skunks and raccoons, you need to get rid of grubs.
Just like a dog, raccoons or skunks will walk across a lawn with their nose to the ground. Their sense of smell is very acute and they are able to detect smells that humans cannot. Once they locate some grubs, they will tear up the lawn, pulling back chunks of turf in search of more food. They may return night after night, trying to see if there are any grubs that they missed the night before. I encountered a situation once where a raccoon returned to the same lawn the following spring and did a little exploratory digging in search of grubs.