By Kristin Winters, HLT Land Steward
Like most wild animals, the skunk is good at staying away from humans, so how do we know when one’s around? That skunky smell, of course! The skunk’s infamous odor, caused by a compound called thiols, can be detected up to 1.5 miles away. This is the skunk’s only significant defense but it’s effective. Unless food is in short supply, predators will choose a less odiferous meal.
Skunks are nocturnal and occasionally can be spotted when they’re out searching for food. They are omnivores and eat plants and fallen fruits, many kinds of insects including Japanese beetle grubs, worms, eggs, small reptiles, garbage, acorns, and pet food left outdoors. (So bring in that pet food at night). Skunks can dig up and eat yellow-jacket wasp nests. They are also immune to snake venom and can eat rattlesnakes! Skunks are often considered to be beneficial animals since they eat many of the insects and rodents, including crickets and grasshoppers that may destroy crops.
Until recently skunks were classified as members of the Mustelid family (which includes weasels, otters, minks, and badgers), but are now recognized as a separate family: Mephitidae. Skunks live throughout North and South America, including 10 species in North America. New Jersey’s only skunk species is the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis. The word Mephitis means, appropriately, “foul smelling.”
Skunks can sport a variety of patterns – striped, spotted, and swirled – but their black-and-white coloring is a hallmark of the species. Male and female skunks look alike. They are generally the size of house cats with large bushy tails, and the females are usually about 25% smaller than the males. Our local-striped skunk has jet black fur and two distinctive lateral white stripes running down its back along with a narrow stripe down its forehead. It also has long curved claws that are good for digging for food. Skunks have poor eyesight but a strong sense of smell and hearing. The eastern spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, found throughout central portions of North and Central America, is the only skunk that can climb trees.
Typically solitary animals, skunks may sometimes den together in a group called a surfeit to keep warm in winter. They do not hibernate. Skunks give birth every spring to two to 10 offspring called kits; males are called bucks and females does. The young leave the den at two months. Skunk dens are usually the abandoned burrows of other animals, but may also be under decks, buildings or large rocks or in woodpiles, dumps and hollow logs. Skunks generally only use the dens during cold weather and to raise their young, and they may frequently change their den location.
Skunk residences may be partially identified by a lingering musky smell, but since fox dens may have a similar smell, look for additional skunky clues like small holes in a lawn (made by skunks digging for grubs), damage to plants’ lower leaves or disturbed trash cans. Skunks have readily adapted to suburban and urban settings but can reside in woodlands and grasslands. They only live about three years in the wild (seven or eight in captivity) and are unfortunately one of the four wild animals considered by the Humane Society to be primary carriers of the rabies virus along with foxes, raccoons and bats.
Although skunks are not typically aggressive, when feeling threatened they will send a warning by charging, stomping their front legs, clacking their teeth, fluffing their fur, growling, spitting or hissing. Some skunks may do a handstand on their front paws as a warning. Our local-striped skunk curves into a U with its head and tail both pointed toward its perceived enemy. If the warning is not heeded (a common and unfortunate mistake of pet dogs), the skunk shoots an oily substance from glands underneath its tail with amazing accuracy up to 15 feet away. The spray can cause eye irritation or even brief blindness, but no lasting harmful effects. The noxious smell lasts days or even months. Commercially available products and homemade remedies can safely neutralize the molecules and eliminate the odor; tomato juice baths just mask the smell – and require a lot of tomato juice!
Skunks are unique and reclusive animals. If you see a skunk just leave it be. They (and you) will be glad you did.