Skunks are omnivores that used to be placed in the family of carnivores called the Mustelidae. Badgers, ferrets, otters, weasels are in the same group.
Because of some newly described characteristics, the skunks and something called the Asian stink badger have been elevated to their own family, the Mephidae (Latin term meaning stinky family). There are four species of skunks in North America: striped skunk; hooded skunk, spotted skunk and scarce hognosed skunk.
The striped skunk is the most widespread and common of the four. It ranges from southern Canada to northern Mexico. The striped and spotted skunks are the ones that live in Mississippi. The spotted being quite uncommon. The two are easily distinguishable. The striped is much larger measuring from 50 to 75 cm and weighing up to five kilograms, the size of a large house cat.
Striped skunks usually have two wide white stripes running down their backs. Although I’ve seen striped skunks that were almost completely white. Spotted skunks are less than half the size of the striped skunk and have white spots.
Skunks are fairly common in the wild and more common in urban landscapes. In the wild, they live in a variety of habitats. In urban environments, they will den beneath buildings, decks and wood piles. They are excellent diggers, but prefer using an abandoned burrow created by another animal. They like warm, dark, dry and defensible sites.
Skunks are nocturnal and begin hunting for food at dusk. Their wild diet includes insects, spiders, roots, green vegetation and fruit. They will catch small rodents, lizards and invertebrates. They will also feed on eggs and carrion and have been observed by me catching ground-nesting birds. A study in Texas found that the gut contents of collected road-killed striped skunks had between 60 and 90 percent insects and spiders. The remainder was mostly vegetation.
Skunks tend to be solitary. The young are born between May and June. In the wild, skunks live around six years. Skunks kept as pets have been documented as living for over 20 years.
Skunks are well-known for their ability to spray a foul-smelling musk in a plume up to five meters. The striped skunk’s scientific name is Mephitis mephitis, meaning “smelliest of the smelly.” The smell is a sulfur compound called N-butylmercaptan, often described as a combination of very strong onion and garlic. But it isn’t the smell that repels possible predators. Once the expelled fluid comes in contact with skin or the eyes, it can cause a severe burning, possibly temporary blindness.
Skunks are highly adaptable and, in recent years, have become established in urban areas. To keep skunks from denning under buildings, seal off all foundation openings. Cover the openings with wire mesh or sheet metal. If they’ve already managed to establish a den under your house or deck, the easiest way to discourage them is to put a light under the house or deck after the skunks have left for the night. When they return at dawn they will be repelled by the light and will find another place to sleep undisturbed.
Don’t feed the skunks. Never leave pet food outside. Secure your garbage. Treat your yard for insects. Skunks love to dig up your lawn looking for mole crickets and white grubs. Restrict your use of birdseed. Skunks will eat the seed and the birds. Don’t let fallen fruit stay on the ground.
Remove debris and brush piles. They’re possible denning areas. Place plastic or blow-up owls around the yard. The Great-horned owl is the only true predator of skunks, other than automobiles. If worse comes to worse, skunks can be trapped. I strongly suggest that you hire an expert for this job.
Should you or your pet get dosed by a skunk, I have a remedy that a friend of mine in Canada swears by. Combine a liter of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, 50 grams (1/4 cup) of baking soda and 5 cc (1 tablespoon) of liquid dish soap. Mix together in a plastic bucket and wash whatever was sprayed: you, your dog, your car, etc. Make certain you keep the solution away from your eyes nose and mouth. The odor should go away immediately. However, this solution can bleach fabrics.
If you have the misfortune of getting some of the spray in your eyes, flush liberally with cold water. This should ease the irritation.
Skunks are very common is Mississippi and are showing up more among humans. Fortunately, skunks aren’t very aggressive and typically waddle along minding their own business. Why shouldn’t they? With rare exceptions, they have very little to worry about. If you see one, it’s best you mind your own business and head in the opposite direction.
Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.