Striped Skunks


Skunk photo by USFWS

(Mephitis mephitis)

Download a PDF of this issue here

Getting Acquainted

Distinguished by their striking black and white patterns, fluffy tails, and unsteady gait, skunks are readily identifiable. Of course, they are best known for their notorious odor.

Skunks are mammals in the family Mephitidae. This family includes the five species found across North America and the “stink badgers,” which live in Indonesia and the Philippines. The family Mephitidae is closely related to red pandas (Ailuridae) and raccoons and their relatives (Procyonidae). In North America, the striped skunk is the most common skunk species.

The word “skunk” originates from Native American Algonquian languages, possibly meaning ‘urinating fox.’ Native American oral traditions portrayed the skunk both as a trickster that used its scent to fool enemies as well as a healer and guide. Early colonial records reveal that some Native American nations treated skunks in a similar manner to pets. 

Skunks are nocturnal and spend the day sleeping in dark locations and exit in the evening to search for food. They are excellent diggers and create long, deep burrows in woodlands or open fields that end in a large chamber with a nest of leaves and branches. They will also happily take over abandoned burrows of woodchucks and foxes.

Life Cycle

Skunks mate in late winter and the kits are born 60-75 days later. Mothers raise their young alone in spring to early summer. Skunks are not hibernators and feed on insects, plant materials, and small vertebrates year-round. They are also hardy foragers and have been known to travel as far as five miles for food. Most predators leave skunks alone, with the exception of the great horned owl, which has almost no sense of smell.

A Pungent Defense

The skunk’s powerful spray comes from two scent glands near their rear. Chemical compounds known as thiols (also found in onion and coffee) are the main carrier of the odor. This unpleasant spray isn't just a nuisance; it's the skunk's primary defense mechanism and a key survival tool. They can spray up to 12 feet and are able to aim for the faces of their predators. Skunks spray only as a last resort, though, and would prefer to walk away. Once they unload their tank, they need a period of about 12 days until they can spray again, leaving them largely defenseless. 

Navigate a skunk encounter by watching for warning signs. If they sense danger, skunks stomp their front feet, execute a charging motion, turn their rear toward you and lift their tail high. This is a signal to give them some space. Should you accidentally startle a skunk, slowly back away from the potential perfume ambush. The skunk is likely to calm down with this response.

Farmer Perspective

Catherine Badgley, one of WFA’s board members, lives on a farm in southeast Michigan and works at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  Fifteen years ago, she discovered a family of skunks (mother and six kits) in the window well of her office building late in May. After keeping an eye on them for a few days, she saw that the mother was absent.  When the absence stretched over more than 24 hours, she became concerned that the mother had been killed somehow. She gathered up the six kits, which were all alive and hungry, and brought them home. Her husband had had a pet skunk years earlier and so they welcomed the orphans into their home.  

In Catherine’s words, “We fed the baby skunks cat kibble softened with water and warm soy milk.  We decided early on that we would release all of them on the farm, so we did not handle them except to transfer them from one container to another in order to keep their container clean. Somehow we persuaded our three large dogs not to bother them. The babies all grew vigorously and it was difficult not to handle them like kittens because they were curious and friendly. They had only the faintest hint of the skunk odor, pleasant at low concentration. One day, after about four weeks, when we were moving them, the largest young one did a handstand and let out a spray toward my husband’s face. The aim was good; fortunately, the spray hit his glasses. That was the sign we needed that they were old enough to defend themselves. Later that day, we packed the large crate that they were in with extra food and took it in a wheelbarrow to a grassy area near marsh, dense shrubs, and open meadow nearby, in the middle of our farm. We left the crate with its door open and returned home. The next day, the crate was empty, some of the food was eaten. After that, we occasionally saw single skunks on the farm (although some probably lived there already). This summer, one of my dogs found a skunk carcass, half decayed, probably killed by a great horned owl, also a wild neighbor on our farm. I like to think that the carcass was one of the skunks (or their offspring) that we rescued years earlier, and that some of that family are still here.”

How To Be a Good Neighbor

  • Co-existing with skunks can provide benefits to the farm. Skunks are great foragers of insect pests like grubs, beetles and caterpillars and are excellent hunters of rats and mice. 
  • Dogs can't interpret skunks' warning signals and are often sprayed after chasing them. To prevent this unpleasant encounter, take precautions. Don't leave trash or dog food out overnight as it attracts skunks. Use motion sensor lights to discourage skunks. Use a leash when taking a dog out in the evening. 
  • If skunks are dwelling near your home, eviction is only necessary if the skunk is clashing with you or your animals. Leave them alone and let them provide natural pest control.
  • Skunks are immune to bee and wasp stings. If you have honey bee hives, you’ll know skunks have been visiting when you see scratches on the lower parts of the hive. You’ll also find remnants of bees lying around on the ground outside the hive. This is because skunks suck on the bees, drawing out the bee’s juicy inner parts, and then spitting out the exoskeleton. Elevate the hive to keep skunks away.
  • If you do need to evict, take steps to seal up the burrow. First, sprinkle a layer of flour about two feet around the opening and wait until evening when you can see from tracks that the skunk has left the burrow. Then fill the open hole with dirt and cover with rocks. Note that the burrow may have more than one opening.
  • Do not attempt to remove skunks in April-July, as they are likely rearing young at this time.
  • To prevent skunks from burrowing under a wall, dig a one-by-one foot trench around the building. Attach 1/2" wire mesh around the base of the structure and fill the trench back up with dirt. 
  • Another prevention option is to slide chicken wire under a structure to form a barrier that the skunk can’t penetrate. Be sure to keep the outer edge of the chicken wire flat on the ground by placing rocks or bricks along the edge. 

Fun Facts

  1. The skunk’s white stripe is a warning sign of their potential danger to predators.
  2. Tomato juice will mask skunk odor, but does not neutralize it. A soak in water mixed with baking soda or hydrogen peroxide will neutralize the smell more effectively. 
  3. Skunks are immune to snake venom and are known to eat poisonous snakes.
  4. Some people carry a gene making them unable to smell the pungent skunk spray. This occurs in about 1 in 1,000 people.
  5. Although they are great foragers, skunks do not make great tree climbers. Their long claws and lack of balance make it especially difficult. Instead of going up to find food, skunks go down – they are great diggers!

More Skunk Resources:

Mass Adubon Article on Skunks

Humane Society Article on Skunks