The striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) has a well-deserved reputation for the foul-smelling liquid it sprays when frightened. However, the skunk is normally a mild-mannered animal, spraying only when provoked by enemies. It is also a beautiful animal, with glossy black fur and two white stripes running down its back.
The striped skunk is the most common of various species of skunk found in the United States. The spotted skunk, with white blotches all over its body, lives mainly in the Western United States and Mexico. Hog-nosed skunks, with “pushed-in” piglike noses, live in a region stretching from the Southwest United States to South America.
All skunks are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae). There are about 70 carnivorous species of mammals in this family, including minks, otters, badgers, ferrets, polecats, martens, and fishers.
Where Skunks Live
The striped skunk lives in southern Canada, the 48 conterminous United States (not Alaska or Hawaii), and northern Mexico. It is found in woodlands, prairies, farmlands, and suburbs, usually not too far from water. Skunks live in dens in underground burrows, in wood piles or rock piles, or under porches or decks. They line their dens with leaves and grass.
The Skunk’s Body
The skunk’s body, not including the tail, is typically from 13 to 18 inches in length. The bushy tail adds another 7 to 10 inches. Skunks normally weigh between 3 and 10 pounds, with males a little heavier than females. The bold black-and-white patterns of a skunk’s fur serve as a warning to predators, saying, “Stay away from me, or you’ll be sorry!”
Skunks catch and eat many kinds of small animals, such as caterpillars, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, worms, and mice and other rodents. They often hunt like cats, lying in wait and then springing on prey with their front feet. Sometimes, they dig for insects in the ground. Skunks will also break into the nests of bees and wasps to eat the young larvae (grubs) inside. Other food eaten by skunks includes bird eggs, berries, nuts, grains, grasses, and even dead animals.
The smelly, oily liquid that a skunk sprays is called musk. It comes from a pair of glands near the base of the tail. When a skunk becomes startled, it may stamp its front feet, hiss and growl, fluff up its fur, arch its back, and lift its tail. Then, look out! The spray released by a skunk can accurately hit an enemy target, such as a pesty dog, at a distance as great as 12 feet.
If the spray gets in the enemy’s eyes, it will burn and cause temporary blindness. Anything hit by the spray will stink for many days. A lot of dogs (and dog owners) find this out the hard way! Many people have found that the best way to speed the removal of the odor from a sprayed dog is to give the dog a bath in tomato juice.
Rather than risk getting sprayed, most wild animals avoid attacking skunks. However, a few predators—particularly great horned owls—have been known to capture and eat skunks.
Skunks are nocturnal animals, active only at night. They sleep during the day. They normally live alone, though several skunks may den together during the cold, winter months. Skunks sometimes also share their burrows with other species during winter, such as cottontail rabbits, opossums, and woodchucks (though each species stays in its own chambers in the burrow system).
In northern states, skunks become less active in winter, staying inside their dens for long periods. On warmer winter nights, however, they leave the den to search for food.
Skunks usually mate in February or March. Females typically give birth to between four and six young, called kits, in May. In some cases, as many as 10 young may be born. The kits are born blind. Their eyes open when they are two to four weeks old, at which time they also become able to spray musk.
After the kits are about two months old, they leave the den with their mother during her nightly hunting and foraging expeditions. The kits follow behind mom in a long, single-file line. Some young skunks live with their mother for more than a year before going out on their own.
Many skunks in captivity live as long as 10 years. In the wild, however, most skunks are believed to live only two to four years. One of the main killers of wild skunks is the automobile. Skunks are among the most common “road kills.” Wild skunks also die from severe weather and from diseases, such as rabies and distemper. In fact, in much of the United States, skunks are the main carrier of the virus that causes rabies.
Skunks for Fur and Pets?
Like many other members of the mustelid family, skunks are trapped in the wild and raised on farms for their beautiful fur. Skunk fur, however, is not as highly valued as the fur of minks and various other mustelids.
Some people claim that skunks make good, catlike pets—provided that their scent glands are surgically removed. But perhaps a better catlike pet would be a cat!
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Skunk article, 2008.
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2001.
- Joseph A. Chapman, George A. Feldhamer, editors. Wild Mammals of North America. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
- William H. Burt, Richard P. Grossenheider. A Field Guide to the Mammals. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.
- Robert Snedigar. Our Small Native Animals: Their Habits and Care. Dover Publications, 1963.