Family: Mephitinae (formerly Mustelidae, but reclassified in 1996).
Length: The skunk is the size of a house cat; overall length ranges from 40cm (16in) to 68cm (27in).
Other Attributes: A skunk’s eyes and ears are small; they cannot see too well, but have a good sense of hearing. The striped skunk has a black coat with two white stripes down the back and one white stripe up the forehead.
Weight: They weigh from 0.5kg (1.1lb) to 3kg (6.6lb).
Longevity: Skunks live at least 7 years (8 to 10 years in captivity).
Rabies Concern: Skunks are the chief carrier of rabies. Skunk spray is not known to carry the rabies virus.
The Nose Knows: Skunks are best known for their odorous defense. They are able to expel a fine spray of foul-smelling musk. The skunk’s scent glands are mature at less than one month of age.
Warnings: Most species of skunk forewarn predators by stamping their front feet, raising their tail, snapping their teeth and walking stiff-legged. Spotted skunks will occasionally bluff by hand standing without spraying. If that fails, they will drop onto all fours, swing around, lift their tail and spray. The spray is aimed at the face and causes intense irritation, even temporary blindness, if it reaches the eyes.
Do Owls Have a Nose?: Most animals avoid skunks, however, a notable exception is the Great Horned owl, which does not appear to be deterred by skunk spray while foraging at night.
A Safe Distance: Skunks can spray up to 4-7m (13-23ft) in a favorable wind, although they are usually only accurate for up to about 2m (6.5ft).
What Smell?: Normally skunks and skunk dens do not smell “skunky.” During aggressive encounters between skunks, however, they will spray one another.
Meals: All skunks are largely carnivorous, with insects and small mammals as major prey (meadow mice, gophers, moles and chipmunks), but they also eat grubs, birds’ eggs and fruit seasonally.
Habitats: They are found in a wide variety of habitats, and are common in many urban areas, but prefer open or forest edge areas where they forage at night, using their long front claws for rooting out food. They like to live along the edge of the forest, or in pastures where there are bushes, or on the grassy prairies. Sometimes skunks will dig their own den, but they may also move into another mammal’s den. Skunks also live under old buildings. The skunk drags dried leaves and grass into its burrow to make a mat. In the winter, it might form a ball of grass and push this into the door of the den to keep out the cold wind.
Managing Winter: During the winter, the skunk sleeps (inactive denning periods and not true hibernation) and wakes up often.
Activity: Except for Spotted skunks, which are mainly active at twilight, skunks are chiefly nocturnal. For example, stripped skunks normally forage only at dusk, dawn and during the night, ambling in search of prey at a leisurely pace and avoiding contact with people and domestic animals.
Getting Along with Others: Skunks co-exist with foxes, raccoons and coyotes. Groups of skunks often use the same burrows as these species, but at different times of the year.
Territory: Females occupy home ranges of 1-2sq km (0.4-0.8sp mi), each overlapping at least partially with other females. The territory of one male will encompass those of several females, but rarely that of other males.
Family Life: The female may have four to eight babies. The babies are skinny, blind, without teeth and hair. In three weeks their eyes open and in two months they are no longer fed their mother’s milk. Males have no role in raising young. In fact, aggressive behavior by adult males toward females and their young can result in deaths. The mother skunk takes her babies out to hunt with her.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Mammals; Andromeda Oxford, 1995
NOTE: Refer to the book Welcome to the World of Skunks, by Diane Swanson, for additional information on skunks. A copy of this book can be found in your school library as part of the Stella the Safety Skunk Program.