Unfortunately, more than half of the baby skunks we receive have incredibly tragic, entirely preventable backstories; 60% of them arrive after their mothers are killed or relocated. Another 30% are orphaned when their mothers are hit by cars. Although skunks get a lot of hate, they’re actually quite shy, and with a few simple tricks can be very easy to live with. For example, a skunk that is denning under your porch can be convinced to find a new den just by shining a bright light or playing talk radio under there for a few nights. Since dogs are predators, skunks would much rather avoid them than spray them. If you reliably call out or make a loud noise and wait for a moment before letting your dogs out, most skunks will learn that cue and vacate the area. Sadly, not enough people know that most skunk conflicts have simple solutions, and so dozens of these beautiful animals are orphaned unnecessarily every year. It’s a common but heartbreaking thing, for rescuers who bring baby skunks to us to have killed or relocated mom only to be faced with the starving infants left behind. Even worse, many folks believe relocation is a humane option, when it usually results in the death of the animal. If you are ever worried about a skunk in your yard, you can always call or email our Wildlife Care Center for advice, and we can walk you through humane options to try first.
Out in the wild, skunks are beneficial and crucial members of our native ecosystem. They’re omnivores, and often eat carrion, insects, fruits and other plant material, eggs, and even small prey. They’re excellent diggers, and live in dens which other animals can use after they’ve moved on. One of their favorite meals are grubs, which can commonly infest our non-native and unnatural lawns. This is one reason why sometimes skunks damage lawns – they’re responding to a damaging infestation hidden under the surface. Managing the infestation – or better yet, transitioning to native landscaping which is grub-infestation-resistant – can prevent this behavior.
In June, our Striped Skunk kits were still quite young and required some care inside our hospital. We periodically treated them for internal and external parasite load, and kept litters separate while we monitored them for signs of illness they may have arrived with. After a few weeks, we were able to join all of our skunk kits in a large outdoor enclosure. We provided them with logs and greenery to maintain a more natural environment, dirt for digging up worms, and a faux den that they could all pile into to sleep together during the day.
With the arrival of fall came time to release our now older juvenile skunks! A few of our amazing volunteers released them in safe locations with great habitat. We are happy our litter of kits were successfully raised and released to continue their natural lives, and most of us here at the Wildlife Care Center are happy their smell went with them!
There are a few skunk species in North America, but the most familiar and common is the Striped Skunk. They can be found from southern Canada to northern Mexico, except for parts of the Southwest and in higher elevations. These skunks make their homes in many different habitats, but prefer more open spaces: forest clearings or borders, woodlands, grasslands, and agricultural/farm lands, but have also adapted to survive in urban and suburban environments.
The Striped Skunk is a stout-bodied mammal, with a small triangular head, little rounded ears, and small black eyes. They have short, yet muscular legs and long claws for digging up yummy food. Their fur is mostly black with a narrow white stripe starting on their snout, up to the top of the head and nape which is solid white, and then breaking apart into two broad white stripes down their back to the rump, with their bushy tails usually being a mixture of white and black fur. The pattern of stripes on the head, body, and tail varies among individuals though, and every Striped Skunk has a unique pattern! They can also vary greatly in size depending on time of year and geographic location; weighing anywhere from 2 to 13 pounds, and measuring between ~20-30 inches in length, with females tending to be slightly smaller than males.
Perhaps the most iconic characteristic of the Striped Skunk is their ~very~ effective defense system: a pungent musky mist if you will! When feeling threatened, skunks will stomp their front feet (very cute, see video), hiss, and shuffle backward while raising their tail as a warning. If still pursued, they will employ their “stink bomb,” turning around to blast their attacker with an oily liquid substance produced and stored in a pair of special scent glands at the base of their tail. While skunk spray doesn’t cause any lasting damage to their victims, it sure does make them uncomfortable. The mixture of chemicals can cause extreme irritation and sometimes temporary blindness. They can consciously aim, and spray up to ~20 feet away, five-six times before running out of juice. Most mammals, including humans, know to steer clear of skunks because of our sense of smell. Luckily for the skunks, this is exactly what they want: to be left alone!
Striped Skunks don’t have many natural predators because of their impressive funky-smelling protection, but for large birds of prey who don’t have a great sense of smell, like Great Horned Owls and eagles, they are just as good as any other food. They can also be hunted by cougars, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, but because of the associated risk of catching a skunk, this is often a last resort for food, a “starvation” choice.
Striped skunks are solitary, except when mating, raising young, and in winter when a male and one or more females, or several females share a communal den. Adults do not form pair bonds, and males only associate briefly with multiple females for mating and do not exhibit any parental behavior with the kits. The young skunks, once old enough, will follow their mother in a single file line and learn to forage and hunt alongside her. They are primarily nocturnal, but can be crepuscular–active around sunset and sunrise. And although striped skunks do not truly hibernate, they are less active in the winter.
What You Can Do For Skunks and Other Wildlife
- It’s important to seal openings in your home or other structures, even small ones, for lots of reasons! Besides skunks, many animals will take advantage of that space and inadvertently cause issues for you. Skunks will dig under porches and foundations to create their den. Depending on the time of year, you may have a mother skunk looking for somewhere to raise her kits. It’s critical that openings are closed PRIOR to the animal moving in–the only thing that smells worse than a live skunk is a dead skunk under your house. On top of that, if you close the entrance after noticing an adult using it, you may accidentally trap babies inside, who will surely die without access to their mom.
- Skunks are often killed by cars as they roam in urban, suburban, and agricultural areas. Follow speed limit signs, and in the warmer months, drive even slower if you can–for babies especially, but for all wildlife 🙂 And if you see animals crossing, brake for them!
- In general, skunks keep to themselves and do very little harm, if any. They are simply trying to live their natural life. Nevertheless, people sometimes kill them or forcibly relocate them, which is usually a death sentence as well. Relocation is never a good option, find out here why.
What to Do If You Find an Injured, Ill, or Orphaned Animal
- The best thing you can do is contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not offer food or water.
Portland Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center accepts new patients from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day. You can also leave a message on our Wildlife Hotline at (503) 292-0304 or email email@example.com and one of our wildlife solutions counselors will get back to you and provide advice for your specific situation.
We’re building a new Wildlife Care Center and need your help! If you would like to help injured and orphaned wildlife, please consider joining our crowdfunding campaign and making a gift to make this new facility a reality. We’re doubling the square footage, adding a surgical suite, and making many more important changes to provide the best care for our patients. Learn more at ForPortlandAudubon.org
If you’d like to contribute to the Wildlife Care Center, please consider making a donation here. Your support helps us save lives.