Anyone old enough to remember the classic Looney Tunes cartoons is familiar with Pepé Le Pew, the amorous French skunk in relentless pursuit of romance. In real life, skunks, which are about the size of a house cat, command deference from animals much larger in stature. Even bears give this mammal a wide berth to avoid an encounter with a bad ending. Ironically, it is their confidence in their potent defensive weapon that gives this little creature the swagger and charm portrayed in so many children’s stories.
Taking its common name from the Algonquin Indian word seganku meaning “urinating fox,” there are four species of skunks in the United States: the hog-nosed (Conepatus leuconotus) and hooded skunks (Mephitis macroura) in the Southwest; the spotted skunk (Spilogale), including the eastern spotted skunk found throughout the Great Plains to Texas and Florida, and the western spotted skunk, found pretty much everywhere west of the eastern spotted skunk; and the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), the most common and recognizable species, found throughout the country except for the deserts of Nevada and Utah.
While animals like copperhead snakes, lizards, and the snowshoe hare use camouflage to “hide” by blending into the scenery, the skunk actually advertises its identity with its bold black and white coloring. The sharply contrasting colors warn predators that they pose a threat (think of the red, yellow, and black coloring of the coral snake and the flamboyant colors of the poison dart frog), and would-be attackers should proceed at their own peril.
To survive in a world full of predators, skunks have developed a highly effective biological weapon. Owing to their short legs, running is not an option. Instead, the skunk backs away from the predator, raises its tail as a warning flag, and stamps its front feet; sometimes they throw in a handstand. Should the aggressor fail to back off, the skunk curves its body with both nose and rear end pointed at the threat and lets loose with a foul-smelling spray from its anal glands.
Nature’s version of tear gas, the skunk’s spray is so potent that one well-placed spray can leave its victim gagging and gasping for breath. Large dogs will sometimes kill skunks but are more likely to retreat after being sprayed, and it usually takes only one altercation to instill a higher appreciation of this lowly creature. The sulfuric acid in the spray can cause temporary blindness. It also contains ingredients that get trapped in fur and released when damp, which is why it is so difficult to deodorize a dog after a run-in with one.
Skunks can live pretty much everywhere. They sometimes excavate their own burrow but more often they use the abandoned burrows of woodchucks, muskrats, foxes, or badgers. They will also use hollowed-out logs or trees, caves, rock or brush piles, or underneath buildings as den sites. Dens have one to several entrances, each about eight inches in diameter.
They are active mainly at dawn and dusk and search for food along established routes. Signs of a skunk’s presence include tracks, droppings, a musky odor, and evidence of their digging. A persistent smell and freshly excavated soil next to a hole under an outbuilding or woodpile are indicators that a skunk may have taken up residence.
Although not normally considered a major threat, skunks can attack honey-bee hives. In order to get to the bees, they scratch at the front of the beehive. Guard bees that come out to investigate are swatted down and eaten. Putting the hives up on a stand or a stack of pallets make it harder for them to get at the bees. Another option is to put the entrance at the top of the hive. Our bee yard is protected with electric fencing, mostly as a bear deterrent, but it also keeps out skunks (and raccoons). Burying chicken wire underneath the fencing will deter most critters from digging underneath the fence.
Skunks can be carriers of rabies and other diseases, so avoid direct contact with them. Symptoms of rabies include abnormal behavior such as aggressiveness, seizures, stumbling, and vocalizing. Although skunks tend to hunt at dawn and dusk, spotting one in the daytime does not necessarily mean they are rabid; females with a litter often hunt during the day to feed their babies. Vaccinating your pets is the best way to protect them.
Skunks are a necessary part of the ecosystem. They eat many of the critters we’d like to keep in check including moles, mice, cockroaches, spiders, scorpions, bird and rodent carcasses, and even some poisonous snakes. To the benefit of the farmer and gardener, they also eat grasshoppers, crickets, snails, and beetle grubs. For the most part, they only become a nuisance when their burrowing and feeding habits cause us problems.
Although perceived as aiming their stinky jets at any hapless creature that crosses their path, skunks are really passive in nature and actually try to avoid confrontations. In almost every situation, they won’t bother you unless you bother them.
Tips to “Skunk-proof” Your Home and Outbuildings
- Make sure garbage cans have secure, tight-fitting lids.
- Clean up bird seed litter. Pick up fallen fruit from fruit trees. Don’t feed pets outside; if you do, clean up any uneaten food. Make sure compost is inaccessible.
- Keep poultry coops and runs secured at night.
- Keep potential den sites closed to discourage denning on your property. Fill abandoned groundhog holes and fence the bottoms of decks or porches to prevent access by skunks.
- If you find a skunk trapped in a window well, (carefully!) place a rough board in the well that extends to the top and it will climb out on its own.
- If a skunk gets into the house, open a door and calmly allow it to exit.
- Block access points into sheds, garages, basements, and attics so a skunk can’t find a warm place to sleep in buildings.
- Consult your local Animal Control office or a pest removal service for trapping and disposal recommendations.