The skunk family (Mephitidae) consists of 13 species, almost all of which are restricted to the New World from Southern Canada to the Strait of Magellan in South America. The exception are Stink Badgers who can be found in Indonesia. Skunks are known for their ability to spray a strong smelling liquid to ward off predators.
Although skunks are sometimes seen as a nuisance, they are actually beneficial to farmers, gardeners, and landowners because they feed on a large number of agricultural and garden pests.
Skunks have been historically trapped for their pelts and this practice continues today. Pelts are used to manufacture coats, jackets, muffs, scarves and trim. Their scent is used for musk and skunks are also trapped for use in the pet trade, which is illegal in Washington.
There are two species of skunks in Washington State: the Spotted Skunk and the Striped Skunk.
The Spotted Skunk is the smaller of the two. Adults range in length from 13 – 22 inches, including their tails and weigh 0.5 to 1.3 pounds. They are black, generally with a white spot on their forehead, one spot under each ear, and 4 broken white stripes along the neck, back and sides.
Striped Skunks vary from 21- 32 inches in length, including their tails and weigh 4.2 to 10 pounds. They are black with two broad white stripes on their back that begin at a white cap on the head. They have a thin white stripe down the center of their face, and their bushy black tails are fringed by and tipped in white.
Did you know? The Spotted Skunk is also known as a polecat.
Skunks are not too particular when it comes to finding a place to live, but they generally live within two miles of water. They can be found in forested areas, grasslands, brush, open prairies and developed areas. Spotted and Striped Skunks use similar types of habitat, but Spotted Skunks are more likely to be seen in and around forests and woodlands and are not as tolerant of human activity as the Striped Skunk.
Skunks use underground dens year round for resting, hiding, birthing and rearing young. They are located under wood and rock piles, buildings, porches and concrete slabs, as well as in rock crevices, culverts, drain pipes and fallen hollow trees. Skunks can dig their own dens but often use burrows abandoned by other animals.
Development and Family Structure
Spotted Skunks mate in September or October, but the eggs do not implant themselves in the uterine wall for some time after they are fertilized. Striped Skunks mate in February and March. Both Striped and Spotted Skunks give birth to an average of 5 or 6 young in April or May. The young nurse for six to seven weeks, and their potent musk glands are functional at about five to six weeks. Young skunks often spend winter with their mother and disperse in spring.
Skunks are omnivores, but they have a strong affinity for insects such as bees, grasshoppers, beetles and a variety of insect larvae. They spend much time rooting around and digging with their large, strong claws as they search for invertebrates. In addition, they eat small mammals, such as mice and voles, nestling birds, eggs, fruits and berries, reptiles and some green vegetation. They will also eat carrion.
Did you know? Skunks will roll caterpillars on the ground to remove the hairs before eating them.
Despite their commanding olfactory presence, skunks are passive, fairly shy animals. Their bold markings are all the warning most animals need to give them a wide berth. Even at night, when skunks are most active, these white warning banners are clearly visible to other nocturnal creatures.
Skunks give additional warnings with agitated foot stamping. If the skunk continues to be threatened he will form his body into a "U" shape with both head and tail aimed at the attacker. Interestingly, Striped Skunks form this "U" shape by bending to the side, keeping all four feet on the ground. Spotted Skunks are a bit more acrobatic, balancing on their front feet while arching their backs up and over their heads to take aim at a threat.
Only as a last resort will the skunks spray their sulfide-laden musk from their glands. They have a nearly 20-foot range, and are impressively accurate up to about 10 feet. If the liquid strikes an attacker in the eyes they will be temporarily blinded, and they will be reminded of the encounter for many weeks to come by the lingering stink.
Skunks have surprisingly few natural predators for their size. This is a testament to the effectiveness of their chemical defense. Unfortunately, many skunks are killed as they cross busy roadways at night. The scent deterrent is also not effective against a predator with a poor sense of smell like a Great Horned Owl.
Did you know? Female Skunks will sometimes share communal dens.
Living with Skunks
The most effective way to avoid conflicts with skunks is to remove attractants. Like other wild animals, skunks will take advantage of any readily available food source. Once they get used to finding food in the presence of humans, the chances for conflict are greatly increased.
Remove food sources
Never intentionally feed skunks, and do your best to deny them access to potential unnatural food sources on your property. Dispose of food scraps and trash in a metal can and make sure the lid fits tightly, or secure the lid with a bungee cord or chain.
It is best not to feed cats and dogs outside, but if you have no other choice, pick up food and water bowls, as well as leftovers and spilled food well before dusk. Never leave food outside at night.
Clean up spilled seed below bird feeders daily.
Skunks sometimes dig in lawns to find grubs and worms. Usually damage is minimal, and since skunks tend not to stay long in one area, tolerance is the best course of action. If you do wish to protect your lawn, you can lay chicken wire over vulnerable areas and stake it down to prevent skunks from digging. Placing bright, motion-activated lights around your property may make it a less desirable foraging area, too.
Skunks may seek shelter under porches, in crawl spaces beneath houses, or under sheds where they can gain access through broken boards or large holes. From late summer through early spring, skunks will rarely stay at the same den site for more than a few days, so you can simply wait until they move on before sealing off access to the den site.
From early spring through summer, females with young may stay at a den site longer. If possible, wait until the young are old enough to leave with their mother before you attempt to exclude them. When you think the animals have left, tack a sheet of plastic over the entry. The next morning, check to see if animals have broken through it. When all sign of activity has ceased, seal the entry.
Occasionally, skunks venture into houses through pet doors when they smell food on the other side. It is best to stay calm, close surrounding interior doors, leave the room and let the animal find his way out of the pet door or another open door. Lock pet doors at night or install a door that is electronically activated to open by signals from your pet's collar. Do not leave pet food near the opening.
Animal Diversity Web. January 7, 2016. Mephitidae
Burke Museum. January 7 2016. Mammals of Washington: Striped Skunk.
Feldhamer G.A., Thompson B.C. & Chapman J.A. (Eds). (2003). Wild Mammals of North America, Biology, Management, and Conservation (2nd ed.). Baltimore MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. January 7 2016. Living with Wildlife: Skunks.