The Truth about the Stripes

It happens every night, it never fails. My Mom puts scraps out for  the Poor Stray Cat.  Never mind the Poor Stray Cat has a home, she feeds it anyway. During the day she feeds birds who, like poor mannered children, spill their food all over the ground. That attracts the raccoons, which she likes also. Then comes the skunks. While some people spend big bucks hiring exterminators and wildlife control people to rid themselves of skunks, my Mom looks lovingly (albeit at a distance) out the window and talks to the skunks. She won't step out the door while they're there, she is firmly convinced that, source of food or not,  they will  pee  on her on sight. I've tried to tell her otherwise, but she won't listen. She always believes the real truth is found in  Printed Newspaper.  So, here it is, in Printed Newspaper: the truth about the skunks.

Not surprisingly, if we look up the Latin roots of the scientific name for skunks (Mustelidae,), it means poisonous vapor. But take a few minutes to learn a little more about them,. Skunks are really quite attractive little creatures about the size of a house cat.  They average between 18 and 30 inches in length from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail. They weigh between 4 and 18 pounds (some pet skunks have achieved weights of up to 28 pounds though this is no doubt due to overfeeding.) Skunks are members of the weasel family, having opossums, badgers, and mink as their closest relations. Skunks range all over the US except for Alaska.

There are two basic types of skunks, striped and spotted. The striped variety have one or two stripes which run down their back and tail and sometimes extend to the tip of their noses. The spotted variety (usually smaller in size) are black with white blotches.

Skunks aren't real picky about where they live. If they reside in the woodlands, they simply find someone else's burrow (why dig their own if they can steal one!) If the burrow is occupied,  it soon becomes vacated (or atmospherically charged.) Otherwise the skunk will live under sheds and porches, in hollow stumps and woodpiles. The spotted variety of skunks is also a tree climber.

Skunks are  resourceful and clever, but not malicious. Their diet consists of insects, mice, rats, grubs, seeds and whatever else they come across and find tasty. Cat and dog food is a favorite. Skunks are often blamed for knocking over garbage cans and munching garbage, The truth is, they aren't strong enough for that, the more likely culprits are dogs and raccoons: the skunk just cashes in on their actions.

Skunks are nocturnal, meaning they sleep during day and active at night. Contrary to popular belief, they do have enemies namely Great Horned Owls, Foxes, Coyotes and Man. The owls seem oblivious to skunk spray, the foxes and coyotes try to pounce on the skunk and kill it before it can spray. Man often indiscriminately kills these animals simply because he doesn't want them around. Later we will tell you a few tricks to discourage skunks from living near you without causing harm to them.

The biggest (and more incorrect) myths about skunks is that they spray urine, and they do it without warning. Skunk spray is actually called musk and it comes from glands on either side of their rectum. They can spray musk up to about 12 feet, but they most definitely give warning. Skunks don't spray simply because they have had a bad day, or they don't like your face: they spray in self defense when they are frightened or threatened, and the aggressor does not heed the warnings. Both the spotted and striped skunks will first hiss and growl at an attacker in warning. The spotted skunk has a unique trait of doing a handstand on their front legs and then spraying over their backs. The striped skunk doesn't do a handstand, but it will stamp its front foot as a final warning before reversing direction and letting musk fly.

Skunks usually breed in the spring, from February to May. A second mating may occur  later, if the skunk did not find a mate, or, fails to impregnate. Young are usually born in  May - June, with the average litter being 5-8 babies. Young are weaned at 8 weeks and typically, stay with the mother until they are 2-4 months old. Some juveniles will stay with their mothers or siblings until the following spring.

What do you do if you have skunks and don't want to have them around? I m tempted to say, call my Mom, but I have a better suggestion. If you can find where the skunk is living, soak a rag in ammonia and tie a string to it. Toss it under the porch, woodpile or wherever the skunk is residing. By tying the string on the rag, you can put fresh ammonia on it every few days and later throw it away. Another idea is to throw mothballs into the skunk's home, he won't like that either. Since skunks aren't real picky about homes, they will usually move on once they are convinced you're fighting odor with odor, but there is no need to kill them. And once you understand them, you might even think they re cute!

Copyright © 1999 Kathy Miles  and Charles F. Peters II