Five species of skunks are found in the United States, but only the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis nigra) is found in New England. Formerly considered part of the weasel family, skunks have been in their own family, Mephitidae, since 1998.
With its bold black and white patterning, bushy tail and wobbly gait, the skunk is easily distinctive. The coloration varies among individuals; brown, all black, and albino skunks sometimes occur.
Males and females look alike except that the female is about one-fourth smaller than the male. An adult skunk averages 29 to 36 inches long, including its very bushy tail.
The striped skunk occupies a variety of habitats, including fields, woodlands and urban locations. In urban and suburban locations they are quite at home under porches, decks, and sheds.
The skunk may excavate its own burrow, which can be six to twenty feet long and below ground three to four feet, ending in round chambers lined with leaves and grass. More often a skunk will take over the burrows of woodchucks or foxes.
Skunks are normally nocturnal. They spend the day sleeping in dark locations such as
burrows or under porches etc. and exit in the evening to search for food.
Their presence usually becomes apparent only when the odor from their scent glands permeates the air after being released at real or imagined danger. Skunks spray as a last resort and would prefer just to walk away from danger.
Skunks use their spray as a defense mechanism when they are trapped or being pursued.
If given the opportunity, they will walk away from danger.
The active ingredient in skunk musk, n-butyl mercaptan, is ejected in a fine spray or stream from two glands located on either side of the anal opening. The fluid, a yellowish, oily substance, can be projected a distance of 15 feet and there is sufficient supply for five consecutive discharges.
The skunk gives a warning that it is about to spray by arching its back, raising its tail high in the air, turning its back toward the enemy, and stomping its front feet.
Skunks are not true hibernators but do settle into dens, sometimes three or four adults together, to sleep during severe weather and emerge during warm spells.
The usual foraging range for skunks is under a mile, though males and young animals sometimes wander as far as five miles. They are omnivores, with small rodents, insects, and seasonal fruits making up most of their diet. They eat the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and regularly dig up turtle eggs and the nest of yellow-jacket wasps. A favorite insect food is the grubs of Japanese beetle and June beetles, which feed on the roots of lawn grasses. Skunks are also fond of garbage and pet food set outside.
Skunks are polygamous, meaning they mate more than one member of the opposite sex. In the northeast, the breeding season begins in February and lasts through March. After mating, the male leaves the female and takes no part in the raising the young.
Four to eight young are born between late April and early June after a gestation period of 62 to 68 days. The young are born helpless, blind, and hairless, although the striped pattern is distinguishable on their bodies. Their eyes open at about 22 days and at six to eight weeks weaning begins and the young forage for food with the mother.
SITUATIONS AND SOLUTIONS
Caution: Young Skunks
During the months of May, June, and July, a skunk den is likely to have young in it. Dens can be located under a porch, deck, stairs, or a shed. An attempt to exclude the skunk should not be made at this time because the young are not old enough to leave with the mother and will be trapped inside. The mother will cause damage trying to get to her offspring and a serious odor and insect problem can develop if they die.
SKUNK INSIDE A BUILDING
Occasionally a skunk will walk into a garage or other building through an open door. Leave it alone it will depart on its own, probably at night.
In order to determine whether or not the skunk has left, spread flour in front of the door then lure the skunk out at night with a 1/2 can of fish-flavored cat food or sardines, placed about 20 feet away. Check the flour for footprints to be sure the skunk has left and close the opening.
EVICTING A RESIDENT SKUNK
If there is a skunk living under a porch, deck, or other building, seal all openings except one. During the day, while the skunk is sleeping inside, loosely stuff the remaining opening with leaves or dirt. When the leaves have been pushed away from the opening you will know that the skunk has left and that opening can now be closed.
A bright light, placed under the structure, after the skunk has left for the night can also discourage it from returning. However this is a temporary solution and a permanent closure must be made to prevent re-occupation.
Keeping skunks from living under buildings requires structural alterations and/or fencing to block access. Openings can be closed with wood, concrete, sheet metal or wire mesh fencing. To prevent skunks from burrowing under a wall, dig a one-by-one foot trench around the building, and tack hardware cloth (1/2" wire mesh) around the base, leaving two feet to be buried underground. Bend the bottom 12 inches outward away from the structure to form an L shape.
Another option is to slide chicken wire under the structure to form a barrier that the skunk cannot penetrate. Be sure that the outer edge of the chicken wire is kept flat on the ground by placing rocks or bricks along the edge.
SKUNK STRANDED IN A WINDOW WELL
Skunks frequently fall into basement window wells and become trapped. To free it, place a long, rough (for traction) board into the window well for the skunk to use as a ramp. Lower the board slowly into the well and provide the gentlest slope possible and the skunk will climb out at night.
IF YOU ENCOUNTER A SKUNK OUTDOORS
Should you and a skunk meet "face to face," stand still or slowly back away so the skunk does not feel trapped. They rarely spray unless they are pursued or trapped and their only defense is to spray.
SKUNKS AND LAWNS
When seeking the grubs of June beetles and Japanese beetles in lawns, skunks often roll back small areas of turf. Though aesthetically annoying, these temporary disfigurements are in the long-term interest of the lawn. An infestation of grubs will cause the grass to die and turn brown.
To discourage the skunk from digging up the lawn, we recommend purchasing a large sheet of fruit tree netting (also called bird netting) which can be found in garden centers. Lay the netting on the ground over the damaged area. Gather, as you would a curtain, four feet of the netting all around the outside edges. The "hills and valleys" in the netting will discourage the skunk. from walking through it.
Chemical control of grubs involves the use of insecticides whose long-term effect on other organisms (including humans) may be hazardous. Dioxin, for instance, is highly toxic to birds and many beneficial insects.
COPING WITH THE SMELL
If the spray affects the eyes of humans or pets, flush with water for ten minutes to relieve the discomfort. The effect is not permanently damaging, but it can sting painfully. Avoid rubbing the eyes.
If there’s actually moisture (spray) on the animal’s coat, wipe with paper towel first. Then mix: 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide (3%), ¼ cup of Baking Soda and 1 teaspoon of dish detergent in a bucket. Use an old wash cloth to apply the solution to the skin, hair or fur of the person or pet, avoiding the eyes, ears, and mouth. If needed, re-apply the solution and rinse again. USE THIS MIXTURE IMMEDIATELY - DO NOT STORE!
Hydrogen peroxide does have a bleaching effect so if there's a concern about the hair or fur lightening, substitute white vinegar for the hydrogen peroxide.
To clean outdoor furniture that has been sprayed by a skunk, wash with a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water. Do not use this mixture on fabric.
Vent the building as much as possible by placing fans in open windows or doors to draw the odorous air out. Place boxes of baking soda around the area and be patient, the odor will dissipate with time.
SKUNKS AND THE LAW
Relocating wildlife is illegal in Massachusetts. It is detrimental to the well-being of wildlife as well as the public. Unknowingly, sick animals may be transported and released in other locations, causing the spread of disease. Animals released in unfamiliar territory have a hard time surviving. They must compete with resident animals, and they have difficulty finding food and shelter. Furthermore, relocation is ineffective: each time a territory opens, there is always another skunk "waiting in the wings."
It is also against state law to possess wild birds and mammals. Wildlife rehabilitators are trained and licensed by the state to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. If you need the services of a rehabilitator contact MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife ) at 508-366-4470, or Mass Audubon's Wildlife Information line at 781-259-2150.
SKUNKS AND PUBLIC HEALTH
Skunks infected with the rabies virus were confirmed in Massachusetts in September of 1992 and since that time it has spread to nearly every community in the Commonwealth. The virus, communicable to all mammals including humans, had been working its way northward from West Virginia since the late 1970s.
Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system, and without preventive treatment, is almost invariably fatal to wildlife. The virus, found in the saliva of an infected animal and transmitted through a bite or scratch, manifests itself in two forms, "furious" rabies and "dumb" rabies.
The symptoms, which appear anytime from two weeks to three months after exposure and vary in each species, cause marked changes in behavior. An animal with the "furious" form can become aggressive, disoriented, and snap or bite at anything in its way; whereas, an animal with the "dumb" form is unnaturally tame or friendly.
Good judgment and common sense will eliminate the chances of rabies posing a threat to people and their pets.
- Warn children not to approach a wild animal even if it appears tame or friendly.
- Dogs and cats, should be vaccinated against rabies.
- Secure trash cans and feed pets indoors so skunks will not be lured onto your property by food.
- Seal areas under porches, decks, and sheds to prevent skunks from entering.
- Obey state laws, which make it illegal to possess, or transport and release wildlife.
- Do not pick-up injured or orphaned raccoons. Wild animals are unpredictable and, when stressed, can become aggressive. It is best to do nothing or let professionals handle the situation.
The local animal control officer or police department should be contacted if a skunk is displaying odd behavior, i.e., appears disoriented, is unafraid of humans or out during the day.
Exposure to rabies
If you suspect that you have been exposed to rabies, immediately wash the area with soap and water and call your doctor, local hospital, or board of health. The treatment of rabies no longer requires the series of shots in the stomach and is now quite simple. Notify the animal-control officer in your community so the animal can be captured and examined.
For more information on the prevention and treatment of rabies, contact the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at 617-983-6800.
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