Skunks

The skunk, a member of the weasel
family, is represented by four species
in North America.

 

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Identification

The skunk, a member of the weasel family, is represented by four species in North America. The skunk has short, stocky legs and proportionately large feet equipped with well-developed claws that enable it to be very adept at digging. The striped skunk is characterized by prominent, lateral white stripes that run down its back. Its fur is otherwise jet black. Striped skunks are the most abundant of the four species. The body of the striped skunk is about the size of an ordinary house cat (up to 29 inches [74 cm] long and weighing about 8 pounds [3.6 kg] ). The spotted skunk is smaller (up to 21 inches [54 cm] long and weighing about 2.2 pounds [1 kg]), more weasels like, and is readily distinguishable by white spots and short, broken white stripes in a dense jet-black coat. The hooded skunk (Mephitis macroura) is identified by hair on the neck that is spread out into a ruff. It is 28 inches (71 cm) long and weighs the same as the striped skunk. It has an extremely long tail, as long as the head and body combined. The back and tail may be all white, or nearly all black, with two white side stripes. The hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus leucontus) has a long snout that is hairless for about 1 inch (2.5 cm) at the top. It is 26 inches (66 cm) long and weighs 4 pounds (1.8 kg). Its entire back and tail are white and the lower sides and belly are black. Skunks have the ability to discharge nauseating musk from the anal glands and are capable of several discharges, not just one.

 

Range

The striped skunk is common throughout the United States and Canada. Spotted skunks are uncommon in some areas, but distributed throughout most of the United States and northern Mexico. The hooded skunk and the hog-nosed skunk are much less common than striped and spotted skunks. Hooded skunks are limited to southwestern New Mexico and western Texas. The hog-nosed skunk is found in southern Colorado, central and southern New Mexico, the southern half of Texas, and northern Mexico.

 

General Biology, Reproduction, and Behavior

Adult skunks begin breeding in late February. Yearling females (born in the preceding year) mate in late March. Gestation usually lasts 7 to 10 weeks. Older females bear young during the first part of May, while yearling females bear young in early June. There is usually only 1 litter annually. Litters commonly consist of 4 to 6 young, but may have from 2 to 16. Younger or smaller females have smaller litters than older or larger females. The young stay with the female until fall. Both sexes mature by the following spring. The age potential for a skunk is about 10 years, but few live beyond 3 years in the wild. The normal home range of the skunk is l/2 to 2 miles (2 to 5 km) in diameter. During the breeding season, a male may travel 4 to 5 miles (6.4 to 8 km) each night. Skunks are dormant for about a month during the coldest part of winter. They may den together in winter for warmth, but generally are not sociable. They are nocturnal in habit, rather slow-moving and deliberate, and have great confidence in defending themselves against other animals.

 

Habitat

Skunks inhabit clearings, pastures, and open lands bordering forests. On prairies, skunks seek cover in the thickets and timber fringes along streams. They establish dens in hollow logs or may climb trees and use hollow limbs.

 

Food Habits

Skunks eat plant and animal foods 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. Field and house mice are regular and important items in the skunk diet, particularly in winter. Rats, cottontail rabbits, and other small mammals are taken when other food is scarce.

 

Damage and Damage Identification

Skunks become a nuisance when their burrowing and 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 may damage beehives by attempting to feed on bees. Occasionally, they feed on corn, eating only the lower ears. If the cornstalk is knocked over, however, raccoons are more likely the cause of damage. Damage to the upper ears of corn is indicative of birds, deer, or squirrels. 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 (7- to 10-cm) cone-shaped holes or patches of upturned earth. Several other animals, including domestic dogs, also dig in lawns. 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. If skunks gain access, they will normally feed on the eggs and occasionally kill one or two fowl. 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 will often severely mutilate poultry. Tracks may be used to identify the animal causing damage. Both the hind and forefeet of skunks have five toes. In some cases, the fifth toe may not be obvious. Claw marks are usually visible, but the heels of the forefeet normally are not. The hind feet tracks are approximately 2 1/2 inches long (6.3 cm) (Fig. 3). Skunk droppings can often be identified by the undigested insect parts they contain. Droppings are 1/4 to 1/2 inch (6 to 13 cm) in diameter and 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) long. Odor is not always a reliable indicator of the presence or absence of skunks. Sometimes dogs, cats, or other animals that have been sprayed by skunks move under houses and make owners mistakenly think skunks are present. Rabies may be carried by skunks on occasion. Skunks are the primary carriers of rabies in the Midwest. When rabies outbreaks occur, the ease with which rabid animals can be contacted increases. Therefore, rabid skunks are prime vectors for the 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 suspicious  behavior to local animal control authorities.

If you would like more in depth on Skunks: Is That a Skunk?, by PBS

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