Striped Skunks

Mephitis mephitis

Probably everyone who has ever been a kid raised on a diet of Bugs Bunny cartoons is familiar, at least by sight, of the striped skunk, Pepe Le Pew. But there are actually six different skunk species and subspecies in the United States. There are the American hog-nosed and hooded skunks of the American Southwest. There's the eastern spotted skunk found throughout the Great Plains to Texas and Florida, then up the ridge of the Appalachians. There's the western spotted skunk, found pretty much everywhere west of the eastern spotted skunk. Then's there's our skunk, the striped skunk, which is found just about everywhere in the United States, except for a small area in the deserts of Nevada and Utah (although we can also have the occasional western spotted skunk).

As well-known as a skunk is by sight, it's probably their legendary, powerful predator protection for which they are best known. Skunk spray is an oily liquid produced by glands under its large tail. When threatened a skunk turns away from the threat and blasts it with a hard-to-remove, horrible-smelling spray, which can travel as far as ten feet. Skunk spray is a marvel of chemistry, made up of seven different major volatile components, a couple of which seem to be made to get trapped in fur and be released when damp. Good luck fully deodorizing your dog.

Skunks mate once a year, and the 4-8 young are usually born in May or early June. The young (kits) are born hairless but have their striping pattern. By eight days, the young's musk odor can be emitted. By 22 days, the kit's eyes open. After eight weeks nursing, the kits begin hunting with their mothers and eventually they disperse.

Skunks usually nest in burrows constructed by other animals, but they also live in hollow logs or even abandoned buildings. In colder climates, some skunks may sleep in these nests for several weeks of the chilliest season. The skunk does not truly hibernate, but instead it goes into a dormant or semi-active state, and on warm winter days can be seen foraging among patches of snow.

Skunks are true omnivores, eating everything—rodents, eggs, carrion, insects, grubs, berries, plants, fish, just about anything that is or was once living, including some things even vultures give careful consideration to first.

But mainly skunks eat those things we'd like to keep in check—insects and rodents. Skunks are generally very useful to have around, although they are a major carrier of rabies, so never approach a skunk (not that you would want to). But in almost every situation, they won't bother you unless you bother them—or you're the Turtle Man trying to capture them by the tail.

Facts About Striped Skunks

Skunks are crepuscular, being active mainly at dawn and dusk.

The only skunk not in the Americas is the Asian stink badger.

Skunks typically live 3 years in the wild, 15 years in captivity.

Skunk weights vary wildly, from 2.5 pounds to 15 pounds.

The bushy tail can be up to 10 inches long.

Skunks won't spray in their own dens.

Owls have a poor sense of smell; the great horned owl is the skunk's main predator.

Skunks can spray several times in rapid succession.

Skunks have poor vision, but acute hearing and smell (how ironic).

Skunks are slow, only running up to 10 mph.

Skunks love honey, relying on their thick fur to protect from stings. But first they eat the guard bees that come out to protect the hive.

When threatened, skunks often stamp their feet. Cute—but run!