Skunk Control: Information, Facts, Behavior, Damage, & General Biology
Adult skunks begin breeding in late February through March. Gestation is 62-75 days. Litters commonly consist of 4 to 7 young, but may be from 2 to 16. Young or small females have smaller litters than old or large females. Kits forage with the female when they are 7 weeks old and are independent at 3 months old, but stay with the female until fall. Both sexes mature by the following spring. Skunks can live up to 10 years, but few live beyond 3 years in the wild.
The normal home range of the skunk is ½ to 2 miles in diameter. During the breeding season, a male may travel 4 to 5 miles each night. Females that do not wish to mate with a particular male typically will spray them. This is a common complaint where people think they have a skunk but it is actually a firm NO to a mating attempt.
Skunks prefer to den in abandoned woodchuck holes, hollow logs, and under decks, porches, sheds, or other secluded areas. Dens typically have good drainage and protection from the rain.
Skunks are dormant during the coldest part of winter but may emerge if there is a warm spell. They may den together in winter for warmth, but generally are solitary except for females with young. They are nocturnal, slow-moving, deliberate, and have great confidence in defending themselves against other animals. In the summer, females may be active during the day while foraging for food for the young.
Skunks inhabit a variety of habitats but prefer clearings, pastures, and open lands bordering forests.
Skunks eat plants and animals in about equal amounts during fall and winter. They eat considerably more animal matter during spring and summer when insects, their preferred food, are more available. Grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets are the adult insects most often taken, but they will also eat earthworms, bird eggs, garbage, and pet food. Skunks dig in lawns for insect larvae and grubs. Field and house mice are regular and important items in the diet of skunks, particularly in winter. Rats, cottontail rabbits, and other small mammals are taken when other food is scarce.
Skunk Information on Family
Skunks, in the order Carnivora, were classified until fairly recently as part of the family Mustelidae, which includes weasels (genus Mustela, the name bearer of the family), badgers, martins, otters, and wolverines, among others. Many mustelids have an anal scent gland that produces a pungent secretion used as a defensive weapon, a seemingly obvious connection to the skunks. With mounting genetic evidence (DNA trees), it has become apparent that skunks do not belong to the Mustelidae but form a family of their own, the Mephitidae. Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis, Figure 1)
Skunk Physical Description
Skunks have short, stocky legs and proportionately large feet equipped with well-developed claws that enable them to be very adept at digging. Skunks can discharge nauseating musk from their anal glands and are capable of several discharges rather than just a single discharge. Striped skunks often are characterized by prominent, lateral white stripes that run down the back; the fur is otherwise jet black. Striped skunks are about the size of an ordinary house cat, up to 29 inches long and weighing about 8 pounds.
Voice and Sounds
Skunks make noises ranging from screeches, whimpers, and chirps. They stomp their front feet in a thump, thump combination when agitated.
Tracks and Signs
Tracks may be used to identify the animal causing damage (Figure 2). Both the hind and forefeet of skunks have 5 toes. In some cases, the fifth toe may not be obvious. Claw marks usually are visible, but the heels of the forefeet normally are not. Tracks from the hind feet are approximately 2½ inches long.
Droppings of skunks can often be identified by the undigested insect parts they contain. Droppings are ¼ to ½ inch in diameter, and 1 to 2 inches long.
Odor is not always a reliable indicator of the presence or absence of skunks. The musk of skunks can be detected for up to a mile away. Opossums also emit a “skunk-like” odor. Sometimes dogs, cats, or other animals that have been sprayed by skunks make owners mistakenly think skunks are present. Odor from skunks that persists for days and increases in intensity typically means a skunk has died and the musk gland has broken open.
Damage Identification Skunk Information
Skunk Information on Damage to Structures
Damage by skunks to structures tends to be of an olfactory nature rather than affecting the integrity of a structure. Odor can penetrate and linger in cloth furniture, clothing, and carpets. The odor from skunks can contaminate items several floors away from the original source.
Damage to Livestock and Pets
Skunks occasionally kill poultry and eat eggs. They normally do not climb fences to get to poultry. By contrast, rats, weasels, mink, and raccoons regularly climb fences. Eggs usually are opened on one end with the edges crushed inward. Weasels, mink, dogs, and raccoons usually kill several chickens or ducks at a time. Dogs often severely mutilate poultry.
Skunks prefer to be left alone. Pets, particularly dogs, with strong territorial instincts soon discover that skunks will spray. Some dogs continue to attack and sometimes kill skunks. Owners should avoid touching pets that have been sprayed with bare hands and keep them outdoors. Pets should be washed before they are handled. If possible, have the skunk tested for rabies. Owners should consult their veterinarian about further treatment for their pets and consult the local health department about their own need for rabies post-exposure vaccination.
Damage to Landscapes
Skunks dig holes in lawns, golf courses, and gardens to search for insect grubs found in the soil. Digging normally appears as small, 3- to 4-inch, cone-shaped holes or patches of upturned earth (Figure 3). Skunks typically are very precise in their digging and they are known to remove insects systematically from the turf in a section-by-section fashion. In general, damage stops after 3 weeks because food is no longer available. Several other animals, including raccoons and domestic dogs also dig in lawns.
Skunks occasionally feed on corn, eating only the lower ears. If the cornstalk is knocked over, raccoons more likely are the cause of damage. Damage to the upper ears of corn often is indicative of birds, deer, or squirrels.
Health and Safety Concerns
Skunks are a rabies vector species. Avoid being bitten by and coming into unprotected contact with bodily fluids of skunks. Skunk spray is not known to contain the rabies virus. If exposure has occurred, promptly seek medical advice. Have the skunk tested for rabies if possible. Some clients will respond with asthmatic symptoms when exposed to odor from skunks. Advise clients to leave the area.
Rabid skunks are prime vectors for spread of the virus. Avoid overly aggressive skunks that approach without hesitation. Any skunk showing abnormal behavior, such as daytime activity, may be rabid and should be treated with caution. Report skunks that are behaving abnormally to local animal control authorities.
Laboratory testing is the only way to definitively determine the presence of rabies in an animal. Rabies can be prevented but it cannot be cured once the virus reaches brain tissue.
Skunks will not defend themselves unless they are cornered or harmed. They usually provide a warning before discharging their scent by stamping their forefeet rapidly and arching their tails over their backs. Anyone experiencing such a threat should retreat quietly and slowly. Loud noises and quick, aggressive actions should be avoided.
Always follow the safety and first-aid guidelines on the product label of all deodorant products. Carefully read the label prior to mixing and applying any product. The following guidelines can be used when other instructions are not available.
Eyes exposed to musk of skunks or deodorant may show severe burning and excessive tearing. Flush eyes with copious amounts of lukewarm water for 15 minutes. Ensure run-off water does not contaminate the unaffected eye. Use a large cup and hold it 2 to 4 inches above the eye while pouring. Seek medical advice.
If ingestion of deodorants occurs, follow the directions on the product label and call the Poison Control Center.
Inhalation of the musk of skunks may cause headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Move the victim to fresh air immediately. Seek medical advice.
If skin exposure to the musk of skunks occurs, remove contaminated clothing and flush skin with water for at least 10 minutes to prevent chemical burns. Seek medical advice.
Skunks become a nuisance when their burrowing or feeding habits conflict with humans. They may burrow under porches or buildings by entering foundation openings. Garbage or refuse left outdoors may be disturbed by skunks. Skunks also may damage beehives by attempting to feed on bees. Many homeowners experience odor-related concerns.
Humane Trapping for Skunk Control is a problem in that many people mistakenly think that cage and box traps automatically are humane. The fact is that humane trapping involves not only the device but also the skill of the trapper. Footholds used by an experienced trapper can be more humane than a cage trap used by an inexperienced landowner.
A few simple steps can significantly improve the welfare of animals in cage and box traps. First, consider weather conditions and reduce the animal’s exposure to temperature and weather extremes. For example, cover half the length of a cage trap to provide an area where a caged animal can obtain shelter from wind, rain, sun, and prying eyes (Figure 9).
Plastic box traps can be used in weather up to 12°F colder than for cage traps. Plastic traps provide greater warmth for animals in the winter but may get too hot for animals in the summer. Likewise, cage traps may be too cold in the winter, but may be a better choice in the warmer months. Consider how wind, snow, rain, and sun will affect the trapped animal and try to minimize those impacts.
Second, check traps frequently. As stated above, traps must be checked daily. If possible, check traps twice a day (morning and evening) to reduce the length of time an animal is in the trap.
Third, use selective trapping techniques to reduce the likelihood of capturing non-target animals. Use as many of the approaches listed below as are practical.
Use the smallest trap possible to catch the target animal.
- Locate traps where target animals are travelling.
- Use baits and lures that are less attractive to non-targets. For example, sweet baits such as molasses and sugar wafers are less attractive to house cats, but are desirable to raccoons.
- Close traps during the day when trapping nocturnal animals, and at dusk when trapping diurnal animals.
Trapping has an important place in integrated wildlife management. Diligence in location, setting, and monitoring of traps will ensure not only success but also the humane treatment of captured animals.
Important Note: Some states (e.g., New York), do not allow landowners to move problem wildlife from their property. A WCO license or state permit may be required for the live transport of wildlife.