With their bold black and white patterning, bushy tails and wobbly gaits, skunks are easy to recognize. Of course, it’s often their smell that precedes them! Five species of skunks live in the United States, but only the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis nigra) occurs in New England.
Coloration varies among individuals—brown, all black, and albino skunks sometimes occur—and males and females look alike, though the female is about one-fourth smaller. 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 suburban and urban locations, where they feel quite at home under porches, decks, and sheds. The skunk may excavate its own burrow, which can reach three to four feet below ground and six to 20 feet long, 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, 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.
While not true hibernators, skunks do settle into dens, sometimes three or four adults together, to sleep during severe weather and emerge during warm spells.
Skunks use their spray as a defense mechanism when trapped or pursued. Given the opportunity, however, they would prefer to walk away from danger and spray only as a last resort. Learn More
Skunks usually keep their foraging range just under a mile, though males and young animals sometimes wander as far as five miles. As omnivores, they look to small rodents, insects, and seasonal fruits to make up most of their diet.
They eat the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and regularly dig up turtle eggs and the nests of yellow-jacket wasps. They seem to favor the grubs of Japanese beetles and June beetles, which feed on the roots of lawn grasses. Skunks also love garbage and any 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; at six to eight weeks weaning begins and the young forage for food with the mother.
Situations & Solutions
Skunks will make their dens under porches, decks, and sheds, and this can pose a problem for homeowners. If you have a problem skunk, there are several humane methods for eradicating it from the home or garden.
During the months of May, June, and July, a skunk den is likely to have young in it. Don’t attempt to exclude the skunk at this time. The young are not old enough to leave with the mother and you will trap them inside. The mother can cause damage to your home in an attempt to free her offspring, and should the young die, you will have a serious odor and insect problem.
Skunks in Garages
Occasionally a skunk will walk into a garage or other building through an open door. Leave it alone and it will depart on its own, probably at night. If you want to be sure a skunk has left, spread flour in front of the door, then at night, place a half can of fish-flavored cat food or sardines outside, about 20 feet away from the entrance. Check the flour for footprints to be sure the skunk has left and close the opening.
Evicting a Resident Skunk
If you have a skunk living under a porch, deck, or other building, seal all openings except one. During the day, while the skunk sleeps 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 you can now close the opening.
You can discourage a skunk from returning by placing a bright light under the structure after the skunk has left for the night. However, this offers only a temporary solution.
Keeping skunks from living under buildings requires structural alterations and/or fencing to block access. You can close openings 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. Tack hardware cloth (1/2" wire mesh) around the base of the structure, making sure you have a little more than two feet of mesh to place along the side and base of the trench you’ve dug. (See diagram above.) Once you’ve placed your mesh, you can fill the trench back up with dirt.
Another option is to slide chicken wire under the 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.
Skunk Stranded in a Window Well
Skunks frequently fall into basement window wells and become trapped. To free the animal, 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.
Skunks & Lawns
When seeking grubs of June beetles and Japanese beetles, skunks often roll back small areas of turf. Though aesthetically annoying, these temporary disfigurements actually benefit your lawn in the long run. An infestation of grubs will cause the grass to die and turn brown, so having skunks as predators can keep them in check.
If you want to discourage a skunk from digging up the lawn, we recommend purchasing a large sheet of fruit tree netting (also called bird netting), which you can find at garden centers. Lay the netting on the ground over the damaged area. Bunch, or gather (as you would a curtain), the edges of the lining; the "hills and valleys" in the netting will discourage the skunk from walking through it.
Skunks & Spraying
Skunks use their spray as a defense mechanism when trapped or pursued. Given the opportunity, however, they would prefer to walk away from danger and spray only as a last resort.
Two glands located on either side of the anal opening eject a yellowish, oily substance that contains the active ingredient in skunk musk, n-butyl mercaptan. Skunks can project the fluid, emitted as a fine spray or stream, at a distance of 15 feet and have sufficient supply for five consecutive discharges.
Should you and a skunk meet "face to face," stand still or slowly back away so the skunk doesn’t feel trapped. The skunk will give a warning that it’s 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.
Eliminating the Smell
If the spray affects your eyes or your pet’s eyes, flush with water for 10 minutes to relieve the discomfort. The spray won’t cause permanent damage, but it can sting painfully. Avoid rubbing the eyes.
If you find spray on your body or your pet’s coat, wipe it 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 washcloth 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 bleach, so if you’re concerned about lightening hair or fur, substitute white vinegar.
To clean outdoor furniture that’s been sprayed by a skunk, wash with a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water. Don’t use this mixture on fabric.
Should a skunk spray indoors, 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 & 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. Learn more about animals and the law.
Skunks & Rabies
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. Learn more about rabies and public health.