When you start to think about skunks, the thing that comes most to mind is the overwhelmingly identifiable stench that these small creatures can produce. Skunks are often vilified for their over-the-top predator defense mechanism, and most people have a story of it plaguing campgrounds, pets, and homes. But these cat-sized mammals actually have some behaviors and habits that should be appreciated, despite their larger-than-life smell.
Skunks are a member of their own distinct family, Mephitidae, formerly of the weasel family (Mustelid). The Latin name for the Striped skunk (the most common in New York State) is Mephitis mephitis, roughly translated to “double foul odor”. The striped skunk is about the size of a house cat, at 6-10 pounds. The skunk has a beautifully patterned, glossy hide, and a fluffy easily recognizable tail. Not unlike the bright warning colors of some frogs, the skunk’s distinctly patterned fur serves as fair warning of its noxious potential.
Skunks live in a variety of habitats, but prefer transition areas of open areas, like fields, with nut-producing trees. Unfortunately, that means that skunks also like to live in residential areas, like mowed lawns and street-sides.
Skunks live in dug burrows, and will use abandoned burrows, hollow logs, or large rocks as dens. A skunk can have upwards of 10 burrows that they rotate among. Skunks are not huge travelers, and most of the time will establish a home range around a water source, rarely venturing farther than 2 miles away. Skunks do not truly hibernate, but they do slowdown in the winter, sleeping deeply for a few months in the coldest part of the winter. Skunks are also a relatively short-lived mammal, rarely living longer than 3 years in the wild. They have few natural predators – disease and birds of prey are their main population controls. Birds of prey (for example, great horned owls) have very poor senses of smell.
Skunks eat just about anything! Being omnivores, skunks eat nuts, larvae, worms, eggs, reptiles, fish, you name it! They will even eat hornets! Skunks are foragers, and so they take advantage of any meal. They are also fabulous diggers, and are one of the few animals that will dig up a ground hornets nest to eat stinging bees or wasps. To help them dig, skunks have long claws and a pair of partially fused toes on their front feet. They will leave many small cone-shaped holes in an area where they are foraging. Skunks also provide a free pest-removal service! They eat grubs, stinkbugs, mice, and more. Skunks are common and widespread, so your local campground is probably benefitting from their work.
A State Parks employee tells the tale of a late fall garden, plagued by a ground hornets’ nest. After being stung a few times, the garden was abandoned until a plan to deal with the hornets was determined. The next day, there were skunk holes and tracks, an empty hornets nest, and the rest of the potatoes ready to be picked. Skunks are not necessarily the stinky nuisance that comes first to mind.
Also, skunk babies are adorable and fun to watch if you keep your distance. Did you know a group of skunks is called a surfeit? A surfeit of baby skunks is sure to creep into your heart, as the smell creeps into your nose. Check out this close animal encounter with the most adorable surfeit around. Baby skunks, or kits, stick close by their mother, and like to maintain almost constant body contact with her (AWW!) but in general skunks are solitary creatures. Baby skunks can produce spray at 3-4 weeks old.
Skunks only spray when they feel threatened, but boy, when they spray you know it! They generally will display other defense postures before spraying, like growling, spitting, stomping, and fluffing their beautiful fur. Usually, only inexperienced pets will push a skunk to spray. If you or your dog are still not scared off after their initial warnings, the skunk will resort to their final “eau de resistance,” and spray a sulfurous smelly compound up to 10 feet away. This spray is not considered dangerous, but it can sting the eyes and is definitely not fun.
The spray is an oil produced in glands under the tail. Skunks also have surprising accuracy in their aim. It can take several days for a skunk to replenish its grape-sized glands, so they really only spray as a last resort. There are many supposed remedies to get rid of the smell including washing with: tomato juice; a mixture of baking soda, peroxide, and liquid detergent; vanilla extract; apple cider vinegar; the juice of many lemons; and many more. In a strange twist, skunks hate strong odors, and having something strong-smelling in your garage (like a hanging deodorizer) may keep skunks from taking up residence.
Spring is breeding season and is the most common time period for skunk spray, as they are preoccupied and easily startled. So, keep an eye on your pets this spring while enjoying the outdoors, but also keep an eye out for your chance to spot a stinky but cute surfeit of your own.
Post by Keleigh Reynolds, State Parks