Skunks are members of the Mephitidae family. The striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, is the most common of four skunk species found in North America and the only one present in Alberta. It can be found across Alberta but is most common in the settled central and southern parts.
Appearance: black body with a narrow white stripe on the forehead and wider stripes that extend from the neck along each side of the back. Some white may also be present on the top of the black bushy tail.
The body size is similar to a domestic house cat, measuring about 74 cm long and weighing about 2 to 4 kilograms. Skunks have sharp claws on the front feet used for digging insects and worms. Their footprint and moving pattern distinguishes them from other similar-sized animals. Both the hind and forefeet of skunks have five toes. In some cases, the fifth toe may not be obvious. Skunk droppings can often be identified by the undigested insect parts they contain. Droppings are 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter and 1 to 2 inches long.
Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision, being unable to see objects more than about 3m away, making them vulnerable to getting hit by cars when crossing roads.
The great horned owl is the skunk’s only regular predator.
Skunks are notorious for their anal scent glands, which they can use as a defensive weapon. These glands produce a mixture of sulphur-containing chemicals, which have a highly offensive smell. The odour of this yellowish, oily fluid is strong enough to ward off bears and coyotes, and other potential attackers and can be difficult to remove from clothing or pets. A skunk can discharge a spray of this fluid as far as 4 to 5 m and spray up to six times in succession. It can cause irritation and even temporary blindness, and is sufficiently powerful to be detected by a human nose up to a mile (11⁄2km) down wind. It takes up to 10 days to replenish the supply of fluid after full discharge.
Skunks are solitary animals when not breeding, though in the colder parts of their range, they may gather in communal dens for warmth.
Skunks are not true hibernators in the winter, but do den up for extended periods of time. However, they remain generally inactive and feed rarely (surviving mainly on their fat stores), going through a dormant stage. Although during warm weather, they may leave the winter den for short periods. Over winter, multiple females (as many as 12) huddle together; males often den alone. Often, the same winter den is repeatedly used.
Their lifespan in the wild can be between 7-10 years, although few live beyond 3 years.
Skunks usually do not spray other skunks, except among males in the mating season. If they fight over den space in autumn, they do so with teeth and claws.
Adult skunks begin breeding in late February. Yearling females (born in the preceding year) mate in late March. Skunks are polygamous, meaning one male may breed several females. Before giving birth (usually in May), the female excavates a den to house her litter of 4-7 kits (baby skunks). Gestation usually lasts 7 to 10 weeks. There is usually only 1 litter annually
When born, skunk kits are blind, deaf, and covered in a soft layer of short, fine fur. About three weeks after birth, their eyes open. The kits are weaned about two months after birth. Then they begin to join their mother on trips outside the den. The young stay with the female until fall. Then at that point the family group breaks up, and the young move to new territory. The male plays no part in raising the young.
The mother is protective of her kits, spraying at any sign of danger.
In rural areas, den sites are frequently found under old farm buildings, granaries and other structures.
In urban areas den sites can be under decks or in sheds, among other hideouts. Grass is usually gathered and brought into the maternal den for bedding.
Skunks eat both plant and animal material and change their diets as the seasons change. They eat many harmful insects and small rodents, larvae, earthworms, grubs, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes.
Skunks also occasionally prey on farm poultry and eggs, young of waterfowl and other ground- nesting birds. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi and nuts.
In urban areas, skunks also seek garbage left by humans. Pet owners, particularly those of cats, may experience a skunk finding its way into a garage or basement where pet food is kept. Or if pets are fed outside, this will also be inviting food for skunks. They also commonly dig holes in lawns in search of grubs and worms.
Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. Mother skunks are known to teach this behaviour to their young.
Skunks inhabit clearings, pastures, and open lands bordering forests. On prairies, skunks seek cover in the thickets and timber fringes along streams. They establish dens in hollow logs or may climb trees and use hollow limbs.
Occasional skunk sightings in a neighbourhood are not a cause for alarm. Because skunks are generally easy-going, they will not intentionally bother people. In fact, skunks may benefit humans by eating many insects and rodents that many regard as pests.
Skunks use their powerful defence only when they or their young are threatened and cannot escape.
Even then, they give ample warning that should be heeded. The skunk will usually go through an elaborate routine of warning signs. Stamping its feet rapidly, raising its tail straight up, threat postures, clicking its teeth, growling or hissing, short forward charges, and especially twisting the hind end around in your direction. A skunk generally sprays only as a last resort, preferring to retreat from danger.
Move away slowly and quietly. By nature, dogs tend to ignore these warnings, so it is important they be restrained for their own good.
Many skunks are killed each year simply because of fear. This is unfortunate because it is common knowledge among those who work closely with these animals, that it actually takes a lot to get sprayed.
The nocturnal habits of skunks, their non aggressive nature , and the generally beneficial role they play in nature by consuming insects and rodents are all good reasons to leave them alone until they have moved on their own accord (which they readily do) or can safely be harassed away from an area where they are not wanted.
The skunk is one of four wild animals (including the fox, raccoon, and bat) considered to be primary carriers of the rabies virus and is, therefore, classified as a rabies vector species. It is rare for a healthy skunk to bite a human. The most prevalent cause of skunks biting humans is the rabies virus.
Remember, skunks will avoid any type of confrontation with humans when ever possible.
Avoid overly aggressive skunks that approach without hesitation. Even though skunks are mostly active at night, they sometimes look for food by day—particularly in the spring, when they have young and may be extra hungry. Don’t be concerned if you see an adult skunk in the daytime unless she is also showing abnormal behaviours. Limb paralysis, circling, boldness or unprovoked aggression, disorientation, and staggering are all abnormal behaviours.
Important! DO NOT approach or try to catch the skunk yourself. Call AIWC (403-946-2361) for assistance.
Not every deterrent works for every animal, sometimes a combination of tactics can be effective. If you are seeing young ones, they typically move on when the family group separates in Fall. However, if attractants remain, there is a possibility that one or more might stick around.
The best way to minimize skunk problems around homes and farmyards is to remove potential sources of food and living sites for skunks. Wild animals are always looking for food, water and shelter. You may not ever be 100% successful in keeping them out of the yard entirely but there are things you can do to discourage them from spending so much time there.
Odour is not always a reliable indicator of the presence or absence of skunks. Sometimes dogs, cats, or other animals that have been sprayed by skunks move under houses and make owners mistakenly think skunks are present.
Wood, rock or lumber piles, an elevated shed or deck, openings under concrete slabs or porches, access to crawl spaces under the house, and old automobiles are all easy den sites for a skunk. Any of these would be attractants. These should be removed or closed up to discourage skunks from making a den.
Maintain a clean, uncluttered yard by removing rubbish and cutting tall grass.
Properly dispose of garbage. Place garbage and compost in secure containers with tight lids. Even in garages or sheds, any garbage should be put in latching bins/cans. Open air compost pile are especially welcoming to skunks.
If you feed your dogs or cats outdoors, removing food immediately after pets eat will help keep skunks away, as the smell would be gone. Even better though, is to keep your pets food inside. That way you won’t ever forget to bring it in.
Most mammals, including skunks, can sometimes be discouraged from entering enclosed areas. Repellents are only a temporary measure. Other methods are necessary for a permanent solution to the presence of skunks.
Chemicals such as moth balls or moth flakes (naphthalene) can help deter the skunks. This material needs to be used in sufficient quantities and replaced often if it is to be effective.
Ammonia-soaked cloths may also repel skunks. Try using pie tins filled with a cup or two of ammonia, then place a rag or a chunk of an old t-shirt to help wick out the smell. For maximum effectiveness, place several around the yard, five or so feet apart. Check the level of ammonia every day and replenish as needed. An important reminder, never place an ammonia station in an enclosed space, the strong odour can be fatal to animals.
Kitty litter can be placed near or inside the den to one side so the skunk has to pass them to get out.
Castor oil repellents may also be tried.
Light: A couple of hours before dusk, shine lights into the den. Be careful about fire hazards though, caged lights might be the most safe. And make sure the skunk is not close by before placing the disturbing stimulus.
Sound: radios tuned to a talk radio station and placed near the point of entry can be effective. Both light and sound together might give a better “move along” message.
Surprise: There is a motion activated sprinkler called a Scarecrow that seems to be pretty effective. Skunks do not like being surprised. This would work as a general wildlife deterrent, as most animals don’t like the surprise.
Exclusion techniques should be used proactively to prevent denning before an animal moves in.
A suspected skunk den should first be checked to determine if it has a current resident. Sprinkle a layer of flour, chalk or other powder outside the entrance. After dark, inspect the powder for exiting skunk tracks. Or by loosely filling the hole (or holes) with soil, leaves, straw, crumpled paper, or similar material. If a skunk is present, the animal will easily push his way out overnight and reopen the hole.
It is imperative to be sure that dependent young are not present. When in doubt, assume they are and consider waiting until after they start following their mother to forage.
If the plug remains undisturbed for two or three nights (and it is not winter, when the skunk may be inactive for long periods), it is safe to assume that the hole is unoccupied and can be filled.
Permanently exclude skunks (and other den-seeking creatures) with an “L-shaped footer” of welded wire or similar barriers.
If there is a skunk (but no babies) using the den, either harassment or eviction using a one-way door system is recommended. Hang a section of 5 cm or less diameter wire mesh or board overlapping the entrance. Loosely hinge the top with wire. Skunks will push this cover open to leave but should not be able to re-enter. Once you are sure the skunk is out, permanently seal the opening. Skunks are often very persistent in their attempts to get back into a den from which they have been shut out. Bury the mesh about 15 cm below ground level to prevent skunks from digging under.
Important: Keep in mind that young skunks will be present from early May until mid-August if a maternal den exists. If possible, buildings should not be skunk-proofed during this period.
If you are trying to keep an animal from living under a deck or shed, make sure that you don’t accidentally trap the animal. When installing the footer make sure to fence all but one opening (large enough for a skunk). Put a few sticks or loosely stuff some leaves in the opening. Then check for a number of days to see if it’s been pushed aside or crushed. If the there is a skunk still in there or there are babies, you will now know not to seal the opening yet. If you see no signs of activity you can finish installing your fence. Still keep an eye on the area to make sure the skunk (or any other animal) has been inadvertently trapped.
Important: Any time you make changes to an area where animals might be denning, you must examine that area daily after the animal has been excluded to make sure she has not tried to get back in or that young are not trapped inside.
Skunks are territorial. So if you trap one and relocate it but change nothing else, another skunk will just move in and take its place. Or if it is not taken far enough away, the skunk will just come back “home”. Many pest control companies make a fortune with this mind frame. They don’t mention that there needs to be preventative measures taken in order for the situation to not recur.
Relocated animals have a poor success rate in new environments, with no establishes feeding sites, water and shelter. A relocated mom and babies have an even worse success rate. The mom will often have to abandon her kits because she is trying to find enough food to feed herself first.
If a skunk is relocated to a territory that is already established by a larger or more aggressive skunk, this can result in deadly consequences.
There are legal complications as well as municipal and provincial rules and regulations regarding what people can and can not do with/to skunks. In some cases permits are required.
If a skunk enters a garage, cellar, basement or building, simply let it wander back out by leaving the door open before dusk. Closing it later in the evening is likely the solution to this problem. Do not try to chase it out or spraying may result.
It is important to make sure the skunk has not been coming and going for long enough to have established a den and given birth, and that any accessible foods (bags of bird seed, for example) have been moved and secured in tightly sealed containers.
Place beehives on stands 1m high to prevent skunks from eating bees.. It may be necessary to install aluminum guards around the bases of hives if skunks attempt to climb the supports. Skunks, however, normally do not climb. Beehive locations can be fenced with 50 cm high wire mesh of 7.5 cm or less spacing to prevent skunk access.
Skunks occasionally kill poultry and eat eggs. They normally do not climb fences to get to poultry. If skunks gain access, they will normally feed on the eggs and occasionally kill one or two fowl. Eggs usually are opened on one end with the edges crushed inward. Make sure to close doors at night. Seal all ground-level openings into poultry buildings. Poultry yards and coops without subsurface foundations may be fenced with 3-foot wire mesh fencing. Bury the lowest foot of fencing with the bottom 6 inches bent outward from the yard or building.
It is not uncommon for a skunk, due to weak eyesight, to stumble into a window well and become trapped because of their poor climbing abilities. Skunks trapped in window wells or other pits can be assisted out by carefully lowering (trying to stay out of sight of the skunk) a wide board into the well.
Cleats nailed on at 15 cm intervals, carpet, towelling, chicken wire, or other material, need to be on the board to give the animal traction. The board should lean no steeper than a 45-degree angle. If possible, a second person with a vantage point high enough to see the skunk (perhaps from an upstairs window) can warn of any signs of agitation. Be sure to leave the skunk to come out on its own, most likely after dusk, they will generally not climb out in daylight. After dusk the skunk can then climb up the board and escape. Place wire mesh around or over window wells to keep out skunks.
If the skunk cannot climb out due to the well’s depth or steepness. A small cat or dog carrier (cleaned out so that there are no pet scents), with a rope tied to the handle, can be placed in the well that the skunk is in. Leave it alone. Skunks will naturally hide in small dark places so they will want to go in the kennel. When the skunk is in, carefully lift the carrier out of the window well and put it in a safe place in your yard for it to escape. Remember to place wire mesh around or over window wells to keep this from happening again.
Freshly planted or laid lawns, golf courses, and gardens are hot spots for skunks. They will dig for grubs in lawns leaving cone shaped holes from sticking their snout into the ground. When the soil is wet, the grubs get pushed close to the surface. When the soil dries, the grubs move deeper, thus the skunks stop digging for them. So the problem can generally be prevented in the first place by not over watering your lawn.
Skunks should not be needlessly destroyed. They are highly beneficial to farmers, gardeners, and landowners because they feed on large numbers of agricultural and garden pests. They prey on field mice and rats, both of which may girdle trees or cause health problems. Occasionally they eat moles, which cause damage to lawns, or insects such as white grubs, cutworms, potato beetle grubs, and other species that damage lawns, crops, or hay.
The occasional problems caused by the presence of skunks are generally outweighed by their beneficial habits. Some people even allow skunks to den under abandoned buildings or woodpiles.
Unless skunks become really bothersome, they should be left alone.
If you think the skunks or any other wild animals are living under structures on your property and the deterrent techniques haven’t worked.