Skunks

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Updated March 9, 2019

Skunks definitely have a bad rap. For anyone whose dog has come home smelling of rotten eggs, they can also cause an inconvenience ! Skunks, however, do the environment a lot of good.

Kentucky Skunks

Skunks are a common mammal in Kentucky and live throughout the state. We sometimes hear skunks referred to as polecats.

In Kentucky we have two varieties of skunks; the striped skunk and the spotted skunk.

The striped skunk is the “classic” skunk and is seen all over the state in both rural and urban areas.

The spotted skunk is not as common and is seen more in the southeast part of the state.

Skunks are related to weasels, minks, and otters. The markings on skunks follow a pattern but are unique to that skunk. Skunks may be predominantly black or mostly white.

The word ( squunck) skunk comes from the Abenaki Native American language meaning ‘to urinate’. The word skunk has had many bad connotations. In the 1600’s the skunk was a symbol of sin and today we use the term to describe a “bad deal”.

Western_spotted_skunk.jpg

Spotted Skunks are not as common in Kentucky

Living Habitat and Diet

Skunks are very adaptable and live in a wide variety of ecosystems. They prefer open meadows and often live near the forests edge. However, we find skunks living in suburban neighborhoods as well as rural ones.

Skunks live in underground dens. These may be under a tree, along a fence row or even under your porch. Skunks have long claws and are good diggers but they will also inhabit abandoned dens of other animals.

Skunks are omnivores. A skunk’s diet consists of small mammals, insects, and plants. Many pest animals such as mice, shrews, moles, cutworms, cabbage loopers, and grubs are commonly eaten. They will also forage for hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets.

Skunks eat a variety of plant material as well. Berries, roots, and nuts are among their favorites.

Skunks are not always nocturnal and will often forage during the day. If you see a skunk on a warm spring day, she is not ill, she is most likely a mom finding nourishment for her babies.

In winter, skunks will often retire to their dens and sleep. During this time they rely on fat reserves for nourishment. However, skunks do not hibernate in the true sense of the word.

For most of the year, skunks are solitary. But in winter they will often get together in dens for warmth.

Skunks are rather slow moving animals. The females especially, typically have a small range of a mile to a mile and a half from their den.

Pepe Le Pew and Reproduction

We all love the Warner Brothers character Pepe Le Pew from our childhood. What a romantic, if not a tad misguided!

In real life, skunks are mating in mid-February through mid-March. So drive slowly and watch out for skunks on the road. Skunks are polygamous and males may mate with several females.

During mating season a male may travel four miles to find a mate.

The gestation period for skunks is about 66 days and young are born in a burrow in the ground called a den. Skunk kits are born with their stripes and are blind and deaf. They are totally dependent on mom. They open their eyes at three weeks.

Skunks are excellent mothers and have a strong maternal bond. They will return to a disrupted nest to look for and save kits. A mother skunk raises her litter for four months before the kits move on.

Skunk Trivia:

  • Fossil remains to 12 million years ago

  • Very smart and can solve puzzles

  • Very clean

  • After a skunk sprays, it takes 2-10 days to “refill”

  • A skunk can spray as young as two weeks old

  • The skunk can shoot spray up to 20 feet

  • Normally there are 5-9 kits in a litter but as many as 18 may be born.

What Is That Smell?

Skunks do have a serious defense mechanism. Skunk spray! Contrary to popular belief they do not seek out people or other animals to spray. In fact, skunks give a warning before they spray by rapidly stopping their feet, growling and raising their tail.

If the threat leaves the skunk will not waste its musk. The spray comes from two anal sacs that hold approximately 14cc of the musky sulfurous oils. The skunk can only spray once and then it needs to “refill”. It actually takes several days for the skunk’s body to replenish the musk.

There are several commercial skunk smell removers on the market. Some of the better ones are listed here. In addition, there is a great homemade recipe.

▫         Nature’s Miracle Skunk Odor Remover

▫         Homemade solution by Bonnie Gulas Wroblewski owner Dove Key Wildlife Rehabilitation

–  1 quart hydrogen peroxide (fresh)

–  ¼ cup baking soda

–  1-2 tsp liquid soap

–  Mix until fizzing and use immediately.  Wait minimum of 5 minutes.  Rinse (as cold water as you can tolerate).  Repeat as needed.

–  Avoid eyes, mucous membranes.

–  Avoid contact with metal.  May discolor fabric.

–  NEVER store in closed container

–   

Rescue and Rehabilitation

Skunks are sometimes in need of intervention. If you have observed a baby skunk that is wandering around without a mother for several hours, has matted fur, or signs of parasites it may be an orphan.

You can trap skunks or with a younger baby simply approach slowly with a towel or sheet held in front of you. Drape the towel around the body and gently place the baby in a cat carrier or sturdy box for transportation.

Do not offer any food or water. Transport to a Licensed Wildlife Rehabber.

You can see some of the color variations on the pictures of our rehab skunks below.

Diseases/Zoonoses

Skunks do carry rabies and are the second leading rabies vector in the state of Kentucky. In 2018 we had three skunks positively identified for rabies.

Skunks are normally slow-moving laid back animals. If you see a skunk acting overly aggressive, off balance or listless you should call your local Fish and Wildlife officer.

At Fox Run, we vaccinate our baby skunks because we believe it improves their quality of life and is important to public health. You can read more about Why We Vaccinate in our blog.

Kentucky Hunting and Trapping

Kentucky allows the unlimited trapping of Striped skunks from November 12 - February 28.

Threats to livestock or property

Skunks are natural diggers and like to burrow. Unfortunately, sometimes they like to dig under house foundations, porches or make holes in golf courses. Occasionally skunks will go after poultry eggs or get in garbage cans.

If this happens you can seal off all holes and entrances with hardware cloth. Skunks cannot climb well so vertical fences are useful to protect areas. They can dig however so bury your fence a foot underground.

If you keep grains or birdseed outside that are attracting mice then you also attract skunks. Keep animal foods in metal bins with tight-fitting lids so you will not attract either one.

Care should be taken to feed livestock off the ground. There have been instances of cattle contracting rabies from skunks due to ground feeding. Feeding livestock grains in the ground can attract wildlife who may bite your animals.

Improve habitat for species

We are often afraid of skunks due to their ability to spray but skunks are fun to observe if you keep your distance and watch quietly. A skunk will only spray as a last resort.

Pets

It is illegal to keep skunks as pets in Kentucky. You can learn more about wildlife as pets on our website.

Here are some good options for pet skunks.

Literature/Folklore

Skunks are not often portrayed very well in folklore. In Native American legends, they are often portrayed as the monster.

But that was not so of the Muskogee Creek who admired skunks for their ability to defend themselves. The skunk appears in Creek stories as defending themselves and their families from threats. Sometimes the skunk will take justifiable revenge on other animals who have behaved badly.

The Cherokee believed that the skunk had medicinal powers and their odor could ward off disease. During times of illness dead skunks were sometimes hung over people's doorways! 



Ame Vanorio is the founder/director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center in Falmouth, Ky. We teach environmental education programs and serve a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center. Call or text us with wildlife emergencies at 859-242-1037.