American Skunks: Pungent Varmints

While the thought of skunk spray is scary, skunks are actually quite passive unless threatened.

| Jan/Feb 2019

  • A mother striped skunk checks on her babies while keeping an eye on her surroundings.
    Photo by © Morales
  • With a nose that resembles that of a hog, this species of skunk is called a hog-nosed skunk.
    Photo by © C. Lundqvist
  • Spotted skunks are most common in the eastern United States.
    Photo by © Zoonar/Walter G Arce
  • Hooded skunks are common in the Southwest.
    Photo by © Paul & Joyce Berquist
  • Bath time for Fido is necessary if he gets sprayed by a skunk.
    Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • A person pours shampoo out of a plastic bottle.
    Photo by stock/Getty Images/royalty free

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, which belongs to the Mephitidae family, a wide berth to avoid an encounter with a bad ending. Ironically, it’s the skunk’s confidence in its potent defensive weapon that gives this furry creature the swagger and charm portrayed in so many children’s stories.

There are four species of skunks in the United States: hog-nosed, hooded, spotted, and striped.

Hog-nosed and hooded skunks are found in the Southwest. The spotted skunk is found mostly in the eastern U.S. This includes the eastern spotted skunk, found throughout the Great Plains to Texas and Florida, and the western spotted skunk, which is found pretty much everywhere west of the eastern spotted skunk. Last but not least, the striped skunk — the most common and recognizable skunk — is found throughout the country, except for the deserts of Nevada and Utah.

 While many animals use camouflage to “hide” by blending into the scenery, the skunk actually advertises its identity with its bold black-and-white coloring. Like other species that have developed striking coloration to warn predators that they’re poisonous or wouldn’t make a good meal — think of the red, yellow, and black coloring of the coral snake and the flamboyant colors of the dart frog — the skunk’s bold coloration serves as a warning to would-be attackers to proceed at their own risk.

Small But Mighty

To survive in a world full of predators, skunks have developed a highly effective biological weapon. Owing to their short legs, running isn’t a viable option when presented with a threat. Instead, the skunk does a complex warning dance, first backing away from the predator, then raising its tail as a warning flag and stamping its front feet. The spotted skunk adds a “handstand,” which is quite possibly (disregarding the potential for getting sprayed) one of the cutest sights on Earth. Should the aggressor fail to back off, the skunk curves its body with both nose and rear pointed at the threat. Locked and loaded, it sprays its attacker with a foul-smelling liquid produced by anal scent glands at the base of its tail.

 Nature’s version of tear gas, the skunk’s scented spray is so potent that one well-placed dose can leave its victim gagging and gasping for breath. Made up of several volatile components, including sulfuric acid, the spray can cause temporary blindness in its victim. It also contains ingredients that get trapped in fur, and are released when damp, which is why it’s so difficult to deodorize a dog after a run-in with a skunk.

1/14/2019 7:08:17 AM

Great article! Skunks are the best mousers and ratters on the planet, I was told by an animal control officer in San Francisco. She strongly suggested/requested that we allowed the skunk mother and young that had taken up residence under our deck to remain until the young were weaned, since they helped so much with rat control. Now we live in a rural area, and used to have chickens. A skunk killed our last two, several hours into daylight (after the chickens were out of the secure coop, and into an area that had deer fencing around it). We since have improved the fencing, including buried fencing (1/4" welded wire) at least 18" below grade. This wire is also bent to the outside several inches at the bottom of the trench when we bury it, to further discourage determined diggers. It also keeps out moles and voles.

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