Skunks

Striped skunk

Striped skunk (Fig. 1)

Overview

The striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis, Fig. 1), which is the size of a domestic cat, ranges in length from 22 to 32 inches including its tail. Its fur is jet black except for two prominent white stripes running down its back. The striped skunk occurs throughout most of Maine. It prefers open fields, pastures and crop lands near brushy fence-rows, rock outcroppings and brushy runs. It is also seen – or its musky odor noticed – in some suburban and urban locations, particularly near sources of open water.

Skunks are mostly nocturnal and mild-tempered, and they will defend themselves only when cornered or attacked. Even when other animals or people are nearby, skunks will ignore the intruders unless they are disturbed.

Skunks are beneficial to farmers, gardeners and landowners because they feed on large numbers of agricultural and garden pests.

While young skunks are cute and kitten-like, they are wild animals and it is illegal to keep them as pets (see "Legal Status").

Facts about Maine Skunks

Food and Feeding Behavior

  • Skunks will eat what they can find or catch. Some of their favorite foods are mice, moles, voles, rats, birds and their eggs, carrion, grasshoppers, wasps, bees, crickets, beetles and beetle larvae. They also eat fruits, nuts, garden crops, garbage, birdseed and pet food.
  • They have large feet and well-developed claws. Digging is their primary method of obtaining food.
  • Skunks can make certain insects more palatable. They can roll caterpillars along the ground to remove their hairs and certain odor-emitting beetles to deplete their scent.

Den Sites

  • Skunks use underground dens year round for daytime resting, hiding, birthing and rearing young.
  • Skunks may dig their own dens, but more often they use the deserted burrows of other animals such as woodchucks. Dens are located under wood and rock piles, buildings, porches, and concrete slabs, as well as culverts, drainpipes, and standing or fallen hollow trees.
  • A den can be permanent or used in alternation with other dens.
  • Skunks do not hibernate. Instead, they lower their body temperature and stay inside their dens during extreme cold, plugging the entrance with leaves and grass as insulation from frigid temperatures.
  • Female skunks sometimes share dens.

Reproduction

  • Striped skunks breed from February through April.
  • In late April and May, females give birth to six or seven young in an underground nest lined with dried grass and other vegetation.
  • When the young are about two months old, the mother leads them out at dusk to forage and hunt. At three months the skunks are almost full-grown and completely independent.
  • Striped skunk families often remain together throughout the winter.

Mortality and Longevity

  • In the wild, striped skunks live three to four years.
  • The few predators of skunks include coyotes, foxes, bobcats and large owls (which have little or no sense of smell). Domestic dogs will also kill skunks.
  • Skunks also die as a result of road-kill, trapping, shooting, farm chemicals, and farm machinery.

Signs of Skunks

  • Signs of skunks include their tracks, droppings, evidence of their digging and a musky odor. A persistent smell and freshly excavated soil next to a hole under a building or woodpile indicates that a skunk may have taken up residence.
  • Skunks usually begin foraging after dark and are back in their dens before daylight; they are sometimes seen during the day.
  • Skunks search for food along established routes and have a home range of less than two miles. As they commonly patrol country roads looking for road-killed animals, vehicles often hit them.
  • When you are around skunks, avoid making loud noises, moving quickly, or taking other steps that could be interpreted by the skunk as a threat. If the skunk appears agitated, retreat quietly and slowly.
  • Skunks have poor eyesight and will often approach people who are standing still. If this happens, slowly move away.
Skunk Track

Striped skunk tracks average two inches long by one inch wide. The long nails of the front foot are the skunk's identifying feature. (Fig. 2) Drawing Credit - Pandell and Stall

Tracks

  • Skunk tracks can be found in mud, dirt or snow around den sites and feeding areas.
  • Skunks have five toes on both front and rear feet.
  • Unlike cats, skunks cannot retract their claws, so each of their toe pads has a claw mark in front of it.
  • Skunk tracks are also usually staggered, unlike domestic cat prints, which are often on top of each other. When walking, canines, felines, deer and moose place their rear foot on or very near the print of the front foot. With skunks, on the other hand, the hind foot does not fall on top of the front foot's print. In addition, skunks wander a lot, unlike the more purposeful wild canines and felines.

Droppings

  • Look for droppings near a den or where skunks have been feeding or digging. Droppings look like those of a domestic cat but contain all types of food, including insect skeletons, seeds and fur.
  • Striped skunk droppings are half an inch in diameter and two to four inches long; they usually have blunt ends.

Den Entrances

  • Look for a grass-free, smooth, three-by-four-inch depression under a woodpile, shed, porch or similar place. Generally, you will find only one entrance; you may notice a musky odor; and you may find two-inch long, black or white hairs lodged in wood or other rough surfaces surrounding the entry.

Digs

  • Skunks dig in lawns and other grassy areas; usually several holes appear in the same few square yards. When searching for insect grubs, skunks make small holes one to three inches in diameter, one to three inches deep. (Gray squirrels make similar holes.) Larger holes in rougher grass may be evidence of a skunk digging for voles or other rodents. Skunks also tear apart logs and dig up nests of wasps and other insects in search of a meal.

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Preventing Conflicts

Even though skunks possess a powerful spray defense, they will not spray unless surprised, cornered, harmed, or feel that they need to protect their young. Young skunks are more likely to spray than older, more experienced skunks.

If you occasionally see skunks in your neighborhood, there is no need to be alarmed. Because skunks are nomadic, your concern about them being under sheds, porches and outbuildings may be resolved in due time: Skunks keep moving.

The most effective way to prevent conflicts is to modify the habitat around your home so you do not attract skunks.

Do not feed skunks. Doing so may create an undesirable situation for you, your children, your pets, your neighbors, and the skunks. Skunks that are fed often lose their fear of humans. Artificial feeding also tends to concentrate skunks in a small area and overcrowding can encourage diseases or parasites. Finally, these skunks might drop in on neighbors who do not want them around. These neighbors might decide to have the skunks removed.

Do not inadvertently provide skunks with food meant for other animals. Feed your dogs, cats and other pets inside or clean up any spilled or uneaten food before dark; place indoor pet food or other food away from a pet door; put food in a secure compost bin; and regularly clean up bird-feeding stations.

Prevent access to denning sites. Skunks frequently den under houses, porches, sheds, and similar places. Close off these areas with quarter-inch hardware cloth, boards, metal flashing or other sturdy barriers. Make all connections flush and secure to keep mice, rats, and other small mammals out. Make sure you don't trap an animal inside when you seal off a potential entry (see the website section "Evicting Animals from Buildings"). To prevent skunks from digging under a building or concrete slab, install a barrier.

Remove access to shelter. Remove brush piles, lumber piles, and rock piles where skunks might live or hide. Before adopting this method, however, be aware that you are also eliminating habitat for other wildlife species, which you might want to attract.

Enclose ducks and chickens in a secure coop at night. A skunk may dig or otherwise find its way into a chicken coop and kill one or two small fowl, but if several chickens or ducks have been killed at one time, the predator is more likely a weasel, mink, fox, raccoon or bobcat. If a skunk is eating the eggs of chickens or ducks, you will usually find eggs opened on one end with the edges crushed inward. A skunk cannot easily carry or hold chicken-sized eggs; therefore, the eggshells are rarely moved more than three feet from the nest.

To prevent skunks from digging under the coop or pen, create a barrier.

Protect your pets. To keep pets from being sprayed, keep them inside at night.

Prevent damage to lawns. Because lawns—especially newly created ones—are often heavily watered, worms and grubs inhabit areas just under the sod, attracting skunks and raccoons. Skunks tend to dig one- to three-inch deep holes only where a grub is located; raccoons tend to roll or shred the sod in their search. The Department does not recommend using pesticides to kill worms and grubs because these chemicals can have a toxic effect on the environment, people and animals.

To prevent digging, lay down one-inch mesh chicken wire, securing the wire with stakes, heavy stones or other heavy objects. Alternatively, sprinkle cayenne pepper or a granular repellent such as Repel® (a commercial dog and cat repellent available at most pet stores or garden centers) over small areas during dry weather.

You can also surround the area with a two-foot tall chicken-wire fence; support the wire with sturdy wooden stakes or fiberglass stakes every four to six feet. To prevent skunks from going under the fence, stake the bottom of the wire flush to the ground or line the bottom of the fence with bricks, fence posts or similar items. Or, make a one-foot wide wire apron on top of the ground on the skunks' side of the fence; secure the apron firmly with rocks or stakes.

A temporary, single strand of electric wire five inches above the ground will also deter skunks.

Deterring skunks from going in or under buildings:

Skunks normally occupy a den site for only two or three consecutive nights. However, during the mating and nesting season, females are attracted to warm, dry, dark, easily defended areas, and will remain longer if the setting remains favorable. Occasionally a skunk will find a suitable den site in or under a building.

You may choose to let the skunk occupy an area if it doesn't pose a problem. If you wish to remove the animal, you can hire a wildlife control company (call your regional Fish and Wildlife office for a current list of contacts), or you can do the job yourself following the steps below.

To try and drive a skunk away, consider harassing the animal. Lighting up the den site with battery operated flashing lights and adding a portable radio can cause a skunk to seek a more suitable habitat.

Barrier

Figure 3a: Drawing Credit - Pandell and Stall

Barrier

Figure 3b: Drawing Credit - Pandell and Stall

Barrier

Figure 3c: Drawing Credit - Pandell and Stall

Various ways to install a barrier to prevent skunks (and other burrowing mammals) from digging under concrete slabs, decks, chicken coops, and similar places. To add to the life of any metal barrier, spray on two coats of rustproof paint before installation. Always check for utility lines before digging in an area. (Fig. 3)

If a skunk gets indoors: If a skunk finds its way into your house, garage or other structure, stay calm, close all but one outside door, and let the animal find its own way out. If necessary, you can slowly encourage the skunk to move in a preferred direction while holding a large towel, or a large piece of plastic or cardboard in front of you. If the skunk appears agitated, retreat immediately. Do not use food as a lure, as the action will make the animal associate food with humans and it will return for more food. If the skunk appears sick or injured, call a nearby wildlife rehabilitator for assistance. Your regional Fish and Wildlife office keeps a list of rehabilitators and can tell you which ones serve your area.

Trapping Skunks

Trapping is rarely a permanent solution as other skunks are likely to move into the area if attractive habitat remains available. Trapping should be a last resort; other methods should be tried first. If all efforts to dissuade problem skunks fail, you may feel that you need to trap the animal(s).

You can hire aa animal damage control agent (call your regional Fish and Wildlife office for a current list of contacts), or you can trap the animal(s) yourself. It is usually best to let someone with experience do the work. Because skunks often live in groups, multiple traps are necessary to take them out of an area.

If you choose to do the trapping yourself, follow the steps listed below. (For detailed information, see "Trapping Wildlife") Before trapping a skunk, you need know what you are going to do with the animal after it has been captured. You can release the skunk at the site of capture after you have boarded up or otherwise closed the entrance it was using or you can euthanize the animal. (see below)

If you do not release the animal, you must euthanize it humanely. The American Veterinary Medical Association and other animal experts do not consider drowning and freezing to be a humane means of dealing with problem wildlife. A wildlife damage control agent, veterinarian or animal shelter may be willing to euthanize the animal for a fee.

While shooting a skunk may sound extreme, in many cases it is the best available method because of its quickness, and it may cause the least amount of stress and pain to the animal. The operator and firearm must be capable of producing a quick death. To calm down an active skunk, keep the trap covered.

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Public Health Concerns

The diseases or parasites associated with skunk populations in Maine are rarely a risk to humans unless someone is bitten or scratched by a wild animal, in which case follow the directions provided under the description of rabies.

Canine distemper:

Canine distemper, a disease that affects domestic dogs, is found in skunk populations. Have your dogs vaccinated for canine distemper to prevent them from contracting the disease.

Rabies:

Rabies is a viral disease that is usually transmitted by the bite of an infected animal. Because skunks can carry the disease, never approach an animal that appears to be ill, is overly friendly, or approaches you. If a skunk bites or scratches you, immediately scrub the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Flush the wound liberally with clean tap water. Contact your physician and the local health department immediately. If your pet is bitten, follow the same cleansing procedure and contact your veterinarian to ensure that your pet has proper protection. If at all possible, try to recover the animal or note where it goes, as it should be submitted to the Department of health for rabies testing.

Tularemia:

Skunks may can be infected with the bacterial disease tularemia, which is transmitted by ticks and biting flies as well as contaminated water. Animals with this disease may be sluggish, appear tame, or be unable to move quickly when disturbed. Tularemia is fatal to animals.

Tularemia may be transmitted to humans are bitten by an infected tick or biting fly; inhale dust from contaminated soil; or allow an open cut to contact an infected animal. Anyone handling a skunk should wear rubber gloves and wash their hands well when finished. A human who contracts tularemia commonly has a high temperature, headache, body ache, nausea, and sweats. A mild case may be confused with the flu and ignored. Humans can be easily treated with antibiotics.

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Legal Status

Skunks are classified as game or furbearing animals. If a skunk is causing damage or is a nuisance, consult Maine's laws on this subject: http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/statutes/12/title12ch921sec0.html


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Getting Skunked

In other animals, musk is used for scent-marking and courtship. Only the skunks have evolved a musk that can be used for defense. When an adult or young skunk is threatened, it may emit a fluid from a nozzle-like duct that protrudes from the animal's anus. This fluid – nature's version of tear gas – can be discharged either in a fine mist or a water-pistol-type stream. On a still day, a skunk can discharge musk 12 feet with good accuracy. On a windy day, spray may reach a person standing downwind 18 feet or more. This fluid has a stifling, pungent, often gagging odor that can persist for weeks and be detected more than a mile away. Because even a few droplets of skunk spray are so strong, it doesn't take a direct hit to pick up the odor.

The skunk's musk is amber in color, oily, and only slightly volatile, which is why the odor subsides very slowly. It will go away eventually, perhaps in two to four months, even if nothing is done to get rid of the odor. This natural process is greatly slowed in areas with little ventilation and when the musk has penetrated porous materials.

Reaction to the odor varies greatly. Almost everyone finds a high concentration intolerable. Some people become violently ill. Most people find even low levels of the odor repugnant. A few people find the scent bearable or almost pleasant.

Because skunks have a limited supply of ammunition, they don't waste it. A striped skunk can fire five to eight times before it has to reload, which takes about a week. Fortunately the animals engage in warning behavior when they are threatened, giving an intruder ample opportunity to back off. First it will stomp its front feet. With continuing threat, it will make short charges, tail raised in the direction of the threat. Next, it will twist its hind end around so it is headed in the same direction as its snout. (Contrary to popular myth, a striped skunk cannot spray over its back) If the skunk continues to feel threatened, it will spray.

Dogs, however, tend to ignore this warning. That's why it's hard to find a human – but easy to find a dog – who has been sprayed. If a person or pet gets sprayed, the quicker you do something about it the more completely you can remove the odor. First, if eyes are irritated, flush them liberally with cold water. Next, because skunk spray is highly alkaline, wash with mildly acidic substances such as carbolic soap, tomato juice, diluted vinegar, a commercial preparations containing neutroleum alpha, (available from some pet stores), or the following home remedy:

  • 1 quart - 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution (use fresh solution, as old solution eventually turns into water)
  • ¼ cup - baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
  • 1 teaspoon - liquid soap, one known for its degreasing qualities

Mix the solution in a large, open container; a closed container can explode. The mixture will bubble because of the chemical interaction between the baking soda and the hydrogen peroxide. Use the entire mixture while it is still bubbling. Wearing rubber gloves, apply the solution, work it into lather, and leave it on for 30 minutes. After washing with any remedy solution, follow with a long hot shower. Depending on the severity of the spray, you may have to repeat the process two or three times.

When washing a dog, wash the body first and then the head to keep the dog from shaking off the mixture. Never use bleach or ammonia, at any dilution, on pets.

These solutions may be used to eliminate most of the skunk odor from people and pets, making the odor tolerable. Only time will eliminate it.

Clothing may be soaked in a weak solution of household chlorine bleach, ammonia, or products containing neutroleum alpha. If the clothing has been heavily sprayed, however, your best option may be to discard or burn it, because fabric will hold the skunk odor for a long time. Never use bleach or ammonia on materials you do not want to stain or discolor.

The products described here may also be used to clean odor from inanimate objects. If the odor is inside or under your house, the area will need to be thoroughly aired out; fans will help.

Remember that the best remedy is prevention. Don't get sprayed!

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Additional Information

Books

New England Wildlife, Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution
Written by: Richard DeGraff, and Mariko Yamasaki
University Press of New England, 2001.
(Available from: www.upne.com)

Internet Resources

Adapted from: "Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest"
(see Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Written by: Russell Link, Wildlife Biologist, Email Russell Link, with assistance from WDFW Biologists Rich Beausoleil and Rocky Spencer

Design and layout: Peggy Ushakoff, ITT2

Illustrations: As credited

Copyright 2005 by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife


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