By Lisa Owens
Many people have their first encounter with a striped skunk when their dog does–the scent of which can linger in our memories long after the dog has been “de-skunked”. Skunks spray to defend themselves. Their spray contains a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals, an odor that is quite successful at deterring predators, even wolves and bears. In fact, the only regularly successful predator of a skunk is the great horned owl. Tellingly, skunks are sometimes such a prominent part of the owl’s diet that both bird and nest may smell of skunk musk.
As offensive as we may find the smell of their spray, skunks use it quite judiciously since they only carry enough in their bodies for five or six uses before having to recharge. It takes them about 10 days to build up another supply. Skunks give fair warning before spraying, stomping their front feet and hissing, then raising their tails in a threat posture. Their spray can reach 15 feet or more. It’s a good idea to keep your distance since the spray can cause temporary blindness; also, skunks can carry rabies although they rarely bite humans.
What’s so beneficial about a bad-smelling, potential rabies carrier? These beautiful black and white animals perform free pest control in your backyard! They come out at twilight and during the night to hunt and eat insects and their larvae, mice and rats; they will also eat eggs, snakes, fruit, seeds, and crustaceans. They sometimes dig in the dirt or lawns for grubs: often the first sign of a skunk in your yard is a series of small cone-shaped depressions in the ground. Skunks also love bees–and everything in an apiary, including the wax, pollen, and honey. Putting your hive on a stand deters them.
If you’re still not willing to share your yard with skunks, make sure you do not leave pet food, bird seed, or garbage accessible to them. If skunks find their way beneath your home, they are simply looking for shelter. They breed during February and March, with litters born about nine weeks later. To discourage them from denning beneath your house, make sure all holes or other entry points are screened or blocked off–but do this well before breeding season so you don’t trap the skunk or other critters under your house. Do not use rodenticides to kill skunks! Rodenticides are serious poisons and kill far more than their intended targets. Rodenticides also pollute your watershed.
While long classified as members of the mustelid (or weasel) family, skunks are now put in their own family, the Mephitidae, in the order Carnivora. The striped skunk is the one found most commonly in urban and suburban areas; spotted skunks are less common and live in forests and riparian habitats.
If your dog does get “skunked,” the Humane Society offers good tips for cleaning up, including some new, over-the-counter products or a diluted mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dishwashing soap. See their website for correct proportions, and do not store the mixture in a bottle since it could explode.
And, if you see a skunk stomping its front feet and hissing, then raising its tail in a threat posture, best to stop, turn around and walk the other way.