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Biology and Control of
People generally relate skunks to the foul-smelling,
defensive spray they discharge when scared or threatened. Many people have
experienced this unpleasant odor along roadways and on dogs that have come in
contact with skunks. Generally, people avoid skunks and have little tolerance
for their presence.
In many parts of North America, skunks are the major carriers
of rabies. Rabies is a viral disease that affects the nervous system of
warm-blooded animals. This disease is normally spread by the bite of a
rabies-infected animal and is fatal once symptoms develop. Rabies has been
present in the skunk population of southern Washington State.
Any skunk acting abnormally, such as being tame or active during daylight
hours, should be avoided and reported at once to the nearest veterinarian.
The striped skunk, Mephitis
mephitis, is the most common of four skunk species found in North
America and the only one present in Washington State. The striped skunk can be
found across the province but is most common in the settled central and southern
parts. It is characterized by a 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 comparable to a house cat, with most adult skunks 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.
Biology, Behavior and Reproduction
Skunks are members of the weasel family, all of which possess
scent glands near the anus. However, the skunk has the most advanced scent gland
development. The glands contain approximately 15 cc of a yellowish, oily liquid.
This fluid is a sulphur compound, n-butyl
mercaptan. 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 takes up to 10 days to replenish
the supply of liquid after full discharge.
Skunks are nocturnal animals, active and feeding during night
hours. Their behavior is slow and deliberate, and they appear confident in
defending themselves against other animals. Before a skunk discharges its scent
glands, it will usually give a warning by stamping its feet rapidly, raising its
tail straight up, clicking its teeth, and growling or hissing. A skunk generally
sprays only as a last resort, preferring to retreat from danger.
Skunks eat many harmful insects and rodents but also prey on
eggs and young of waterfowl and other ground- nesting birds. They sometimes
cause problems in bee yards by feeding on bees as they emerge from the hive.
Skunks also occasionally prey on farm poultry and eggs.
Several skunks, generally one mature male and several (up to
12) females, gather at and cohabitate a winter den site from fall until spring.
The same winter den is generally used year after year if not disturbed. In rural
areas, den sites are frequently found under old farm buildings, granaries and
other structures. Skunks do not hibernate but generally remain inactive during
winter, surviving on their fat stores. However, they may leave the winter den
for short periods during warm weather.
Skunks mate during February and March. One male may breed
several females. After mating, female skunks disperse from the winter den to a
separate maternal den. Grass is usually gathered and brought into the maternal
den for bedding. Generally, 4 - 7 young are born about nine weeks after mating
in May or June. The young are blind and deaf at birth with short, fine fur.
Adult male skunks do not take part in rearing offspring. The young are nursed in
the den for about six weeks before joining their mother on trips outside the
den. By this time they are miniature replicas of adults. The young are weaned by
about two months of age. The family group breaks up in the fall, and the young
move to new territory. They generally travel about six to 10 km in search of a
new home; however, extremes of up to 50 km have been recorded.Legal status
Skunks are not protected by law in Washington State. The
Agricultural Pests Act declares the skunk a nuisance. This allows landowners to
destroy skunks and skunk dens on their land. The Wildlife Act classifies the
skunk as a non-licensed animal. Skunks can be hunted or trapped year-round on
private land by the property owner and during the fur trapping season by a
Non-lethal control methods
Exclusion and habitat modification A skunk becomes a problem
when its presence and activities conflict with people. The best way to minimize
skunk problems around homes and farmyards is to remove potential sources of food
and living sites for skunks.
Skunks can be prevented from living or entering under
buildings and other structures by closing all spaces with wood or metal screen.
Ensure spaces are enclosed tightly to the ground to discourage digging. When
skunks are already living under a building, they can be coerced to leave in the
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 unsure how many skunks are present under a
building, 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 all skunks are
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, especially when young are
present. Therefore, wire mesh of 5 cm or less diameter spacing is recommended
for blocking entrances. Bury the mesh about 15 cm below ground level to prevent
skunks from digging under.
If a skunk enters a garage, cellar, basement or building,
leave a door open so it can leave. Do not try to chase it out or spraying may
result. Skunks trapped in window wells or other pits can be assisted to leave by
carefully lowering a wide board, with cleats nailed on at 15 cm intervals, into
the pit. The skunk can then climb up the board and escape. Place wire mesh
around or over window wells to keep out skunks.
Skunks can also live beneath brushpiles, rockpiles, stacked
lumber and wrecked automobiles. These, as well as old, abandoned or unused
granaries and buildings, should be removed to discourage skunk presence.
Maintain a clean, uncluttered yard by removing rubbish and cutting tall grass.
Road culverts in dry locations are often used by skunks as dens. Place 5 to 7.5
cm diameter wire mesh over culvert openings to prevent use by skunks.
Properly fenced poultry runs will prevent predation by skunks
and other wild animals.
Place beehives on stands about 1 m high to prevent skunks
from eating bees. Beehive locations can be fenced with 50 cm high wire mesh of
7.5 cm or less spacing to prevent skunk access. Pet food and improperly stored
garbage and compost attract skunks and other scavengers. Place garbage and
compost in secure containers with tight lids. Do not leave pet food, water
dishes and food scraps accessible to skunks.
Lights, sounds, and chemicals such as moth balls or ammonia
soaked in rags, may temporarily discourage skunks from entering an enclosed
area. However, other methods are necessary for a permanent solution to the
presence of skunks.
Lethal control methods
When skunks need to be removed, trapping with a box-design
live trap works the best. These traps should be of solid construction with a
single entrance and measure about 18 to 25 cm square and 76 cm long. When set,
the entrance door is locked up in place to allow a skunk to enter the trap. When
the skunk steps on a false floor in the trap, the door closes behind the skunk.
Live traps for skunks can be purchased from hardware and other stores, or you can construct a trap from wood.
Some of the commercial live traps are made of open mesh. These should be
enclosed with tin or light plywood before use to allow easy handling of captured
skunks with little risk of the skunk spraying. Skunks do not generally spray in
an enclosed space. An enclosed trap containing a skunk can be gently picked up
and moved with a vehicle to another location for skunk release or destruction,
generally without incident. Skunks that are being released should be moved at
least 12 km to prevent their return. Destroy captured skunks humanely. You may
release them at a safe location and shoot them with a shotgun, or wrap the trap
tightly in plastic and then gas with propane for about five minutes to
asphyxiate the skunk.
Skunks are easy to catch in live traps. Use sardines or moist
cat food as bait. Place the bait inside, at the back of the trap. When the skunk
tries to get the bait, the trap door closes and captures the skunk. Make sure
you have caught a skunk and not a cat or other small animal before moving the
animal or gassing it. Live traps should have an inspection hole in the top for
identifying what you have caught. Traps should be inspected every morning and
prompt action taken to remove the captured animal.
Foothold and body-gripping traps are not recommended for
catching skunks, especially around homes and yards. Skunks often spray when
caught in these traps. Public controversy surrounds the humaneness of these
traps for capturing animals. These traps can severely injure or kill cats, dogs
and other non-target animals.