American Skunks: Pungent Varmints
By Jo Ann Abell
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.
A skunk’s powerful defense mechanism doesn’t work against aerial predators, though. Great horned owls are the most common predator of skunks, followed by eagles and hawks. These predators don’t have a well-developed sense of smell, rendering them effectively invulnerable to the ill effects of the spray.
Ground predators include foxes, coyotes, cougars, bobcats, and badgers. Large dogs will sometimes kill skunks, but they’re likely to retreat after being sprayed. Typically one altercation is all it takes to instill a higher appreciation of the skunk’s potent defense apparatus.
Homes and Habits
Skunks can be found living almost anywhere, including woodlands, fence rows, agricultural areas, weedy fields, parks, and even cities and suburban neighborhoods. They sometimes excavate their own burrows, but more often use those abandoned by woodchucks, muskrats, foxes, or badgers. They’ll also use hollowed-out logs or trees, caves, rock or brush piles, and dugouts underneath buildings as den sites.
Dens have anywhere from one to several entrances, each about 8 inches in diameter, and may extend underground for distances up to 50 feet. Skunks don’t hibernate, but will spend much more time inside their den in the winter, often sharing their den with other skunks.
Skunks are active mainly at dawn and dusk, and search for food along established routes. Both males and females occupy overlapping home ranges, usually under 2 square miles, throughout most of the year. Signs of a skunk’s presence include tracks, droppings, a musky odor, and evidence of digging. A persistent smell and freshly excavated soil next to a hole under an outbuilding or woodpile are sure indicators that a skunk may have taken up residence.
True omnivores, skunks eat a wide variety of foods. These include rodents, eggs, carrion, insects, berries, plants, and fish — just about anything alive or dead, including some things even vultures first give careful consideration. If they can gain access to a poultry coop, skunks will eat the eggs and may hurt or even kill the birds.
My husband and I raise chickens, but we haven’t had a big problem with skunks. One was hanging around a few years ago, so we set up a baited live trap. We covered the trap with a tarp to reduce the chance of getting sprayed. After we caught the skunk, we carefully relocated it to the George Washington National Forest, which abuts our property. Consult your local Animal Control office or a pest removal service for trapping and disposal recommendations.
Although not normally considered a major threat, skunks can weaken strong honeybee hives and cause lethal damage to already stressed colonies. Skunks scratch at the front of the beehive to get at the bees. When the guard bees come out to investigate, they’re swatted down and eaten. Placing hives up on a stand or a stack of pallets will make it harder for skunks to bother with 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.
The average lifespan of skunks in the wild is only 2 to 3 years, due to disease, predation by birds, and human interaction — including road kills, trapping, shooting, and killing by farm chemicals and machinery. Humans should avoid direct contact with skunks, as they can be carriers of rabies and other diseases.
Symptoms of rabies in skunks include abnormal behavior, such as aggressiveness, seizures, stumbling, and vocalizing. Although skunks tend to hunt at dawn and dusk, spotting a skunk in the daytime doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rabid. For instance, females with a litter often hunt during the day to feed their babies. Skunks can also be rabid and not show any symptoms. Rabies is transmitted to humans and animals through the infected skunk’s saliva. Vaccinating your pets is the best way to protect them.
The Good News
Skunks are a necessary part of the ecosystem. They provide a valuable service by eating many critters we’d like to keep in check, including moles, mice, cockroaches, spiders, scorpions, bird and rodent carcasses left behind by cats or other animals, 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, skunks only become a nuisance when their burrowing and feeding habits cause us problems.
Although known for 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. If skunks aren’t threatened, they’re curious, playful, fearless, and mostly just interested in going about their way.
Jo Ann Abell lives on a small farm in southwestern Virginia with her husband, three dogs, chickens, and 200,000 honeybees.
Tips to “Skunk-Proof” Your Home & Outbuildings:
- Make sure garbage cans have secure, tight-fitting lids.
- Clean up bird seed litter.
- Pick up fallen fruit from trees.
- Don’t feed pets outside, or, if you do, clean up any uneaten food.
- Make compost inaccessible.
- Keep poultry coops and runs secure 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 so the skunk can 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, or attics so skunks can’t find a warm place to sleep.
Despite your taking every precaution to eliminate skunks from your property, an off-leash dog can still corner a skunk and get sprayed. Luckily, there’s a simple homemade concoction that will get rid of the smell:
- Mix 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide with 1⁄4 cup baking soda and 1 teaspoon liquid dishwashing soap.
- Lather the mixture into the dog’s fur, being careful to avoid the eyes and nose. Let sit for 5 minutes, and then rinse thoroughly.
If left on too long, the mixture can irritate the dog’s skin. Be aware that the peroxide might discolor your dog’s coat and any fabric it comes in contact with.
NOTE: The solution needs to be prepared immediately before use to maintain potency.
DO NOT store this mixture, as it can explode if left in a sealed container.
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