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Striped Skunk

Mephitis mephitis

by Elizabeth T.I. James
Updated by Colleen Olfenbuttel
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, 2009.
Creative Commons, Attribution, No derivative works

Classification

Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora

Average Size

Length: 1.7-2.6 ft.
Height: 6-9 in.
Weight: males 6-14 lbs., females 4-10 lbs.

Food

Insects, worms, small rodents, bird eggs, reptiles, fruits, acorns, seeds.

Breeding

Promiscuous; males will mate with several females. Breed between mid-February and mid-April. Males remain solitary except when mating. Gestation period is 66 to 75 days.

Young

Called kits. Litter size is 5 to 9. Kits born May to early June. Kits nurse for about 7 to 8 weeks and open their eyes at 22 days. Kits follow their mother on hunting trips at 2 months old and leave the family in the fall. Musk is present at birth and can be emitted at 8 days old. Sexually mature between 1 and 2 years.

Life Expectancy

1 to 6 years in the wild. Up to 10 years in captivity.

Range and Distribution

The striped skunk is found throughout the lower 48 states except in the Southwest. The striped skunk occupies most of North Carolina, although it is most common in the Mountain and Piedmont regions. It is uncommon in most of the Coastal Plain, where it did not occur historically; it is rare to absent in certain Coastal Plain counties.

General Information

The striped skunk is well known for its black and white coloration and its ability to spray a smelly secretion from scent sacs located in its hind quarters. On each side of the anus is a scent gland surrounded by muscles. When alarmed, skunks contract the muscles around the gland and spray a yellowish, nauseating musk. The secretion causes momentary blindness and a terrible, lingering smell. Because of this natural “chemical weapon,” people and other animals avoid the skunk and treat it with caution.

Description

Striped skunks are about the size of a large housecat. Although the amount and location of black and white fur varies from skunk to skunk, the white fur, beginning on the top of the head, usually separates into two white stripes that run down its back. The tail is long, bushy and black and white. The head is small and triangular-shaped. The skunk has small rounded ears and beady black eyes. The legs are short and the front feet are equipped with long curved claws for digging. Males are usually 10 percent larger than females.

History and Status

Today, the skunk is best known as the butt of jokes and cartoons because of its unpleasant odor. The skunk was also the subject of many Indian superstitions and myths. One explanation for the city of Chicago’s name is that it is named after an Indian word meaning “the place-of-the-skunk.” The name may be related to a Native American legend that told of a giant skunk being killed
on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. The natives used the skunk for food and medicine.

There are four species of skunk in the world, located in North and South America. These include the striped, hooded, hog-nosed and spotted skunks. The striped skunk has 13 subspecies. The subspecies Mephitis mephitis elongate is found in North Carolina. This name comes from the Latin word meaning “bad odor.”

Habitat and Habits

Skunks live in areas with a mixture of woods, brush and open fields broken up by wooded ravines and rocky outcrops. They prefer timbered areas and pastures with good water sources. Skunks create dens by digging into slopes of hills and spend most of the day there.

They hunt and move mostly at night or early morning. Skunks do not hibernate, but, during cold weather, they become dormant and remain in the den most of the winter. During this time their body temperature remains near normal. Several skunks may share the same winter den.

The skunk is an omnivore, with about 80 percent of its diet consisting of insects, worms, small rodents, bird eggs and reptiles. It also eats berries, acorns and other vegetable matter.

Skunks are adept at digging and swimming. They primarily use their nose and ears to forage for food, due to poor eyesight. Skunks frequently leave evidence of their feeding: small, cone-shaped holes in the soil, where they’ve dug for grubs.

On average, skunks live about three years in the wild. Disease and predation usually cause their deaths.

People Interactions

Because skunks move mostly at night, many people never see them unless they are raiding a trash can or get hit by a car. If a person frightens a striped skunk, the skunk first faces the person, straightens its legs, arches its back, puts its tail straight up and bristles the tail hair to give the appearance that it is bigger than it is. It also clicks its teeth and stamps the ground. If the person or animal continues to advance, the skunk bends its body sideways in the form of a “U” so that the hindquarters face the person, then it squirts the musk. Ammonia or tomato juice help remove the odor, if you are sprayed. Carbolic soap and water is best for washing the skin.

Although skunks are seldom trapped for their fur in North Carolina, they are trapped in the northern portions of their range where their fur is finer and the black color more intense. Skunks are affected by people in other ways, through habitat destruction, car accidents and poisoning. Since skunks will eat bird eggs, they are known predators of domestic chicken eggs, as well as turkey and waterfowl eggs. Although illegal, skunks are often poisoned in the mistaken belief that all skunks have rabies. While skunks are one of the main carriers of rabies in North America, the chances of encountering a rabid skunk are very low.

NCWRC Interaction: How You Can Help

Skunks, like several other wild animals, can thrive in suburban and urban areas. To avoid problems with skunks, follow some basic rules:

  • Secure your garbage. Skunks will raid open trash materials and compost piles. Secure your garbage in tough plastic containers with tight-fitting lids and keep inside when possible. Take out trash the morning of pick up. Keep compost piles in containers designed to contain but vent the material.

  • Feed pets indoors. Outdoor feeding attracts skunks and other types of wild animals. Close off crawl spaces under porches and sheds. Skunks will use such areas for resting and raising young. Close shed and garage doors at night, and use chicken wire to keep skunks from digging under porches.

  • Protect your pet from being sprayed. Always turn on a flood light and check your yard for skunks before letting your dog out at night

  • Keep bird feeder areas clean. Use feeders designed to keep seed off the ground. Remove feeders if skunks are regularly seen around your yard.

  • Educate your neighbors. Pass this information along.

References

The Encyclopedia of North American Wildlife (Bison Books, 1983).

Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals, Volume 3 (McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., 1990).

Webster, Wm. David, James F. Parnell, and Walter C. Biggs. Mammals of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland (University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

Credits

Produced by the Division of Conservation Education, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Cay Cross–Editor.

Illustrated by J.T. Newman. Photos by Steve Maslowski.

Profile courtesy of NC WINS (NC Wildlife Information Network Share)

 

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Comments

Comment: 

I live outside waynesville, nc and have twice seen unusual colorations in skunks in my neighbor hood. Several years ago, i saw an all-white skunk cross right in front of my car. Then yesterday, I had a daylight sighting of a skunk that was all black except for a triangular white shape on the back of its neck. The white did not go down the back at all.

Comment: 

The information on this site is very informative and accurate based on my research and personal experience. We spotted a skunk at our house in a residential area. All sightings were in the daylight hours and had me concerned, for this was not necessarily normal behavior. After calling Cabarrus Animal Control which is partnered with the Sheriff's office, they referred me to a trapping company. The trapping company wanted $425 for 2 weeks worth of trapping. It would cost another $425 if they did not trap it in those two weeks. Once captured they would have to "put down" the animal by law. We have just taken precautions to keep it from taking up residence. We have no idea where it actually is sleeping.

Comment: 

Skunk Removal:

You’ll want to get in touch with the Animal Control department in your town or county government offices.  They don’t necessarily deal with the problem themselves, but they usually have privately contracted removal services to whom they can refer you.

Depending on where you live, you may want to get in touch with TruTech, which contracts with many local County offices: 

http://www.trutechinc.com/north-carolina-animal-control-services.html

-From the N.C. Government & Heritage Library Reference Services

Comment: 

I live in an old farmhouse. I think I have a skunk that lives under the house as I regularly wake up in the early morning hours unable to breathe from the odor. How do I go about getting rid of this beast?

Comment: 

We have the same problem. It's mid November but every night starting around 8 pm, but definitely around 3-5 am, something is banging around in the crawl space. We've plugged all the openings we can find.

What to do? (we're not sure it's a skunk but pretty sure).
Thanks.

Comment: 

Thanks for writing. I am forwarding your question to our reference services who can assist you. Their contact info is here: http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/contact.html

T. Mike Childs, NCpedia, N.C. Government & Heritage Library.

Comment: 

Hi, Thanks for writing. I am forwarding your question to our reference department who can help you with it. Their contact info is here: http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/contact.html

T. Mike Childs, NCpedia, N.C. Government & Heritage Library.

Comment: 

We had a skunk in our yard that was blonde on top with a black stomach. Is this normal for NC?

Comment response:

Thanks for posting your question about skunks on NCpedia.org. Coloring varies even for striped skunks. So, that may very well have been normal. If you have a picture, you may wish to check it against some field guides in your local library or with a NC Wildlife professional.

Thanks again for taking the time to post.

Best,

Michelle Czaikowski, Government & Heritage Library

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