Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis
DIET: Insects, snails, eggs, rodents and other small animals, fruit, grains, scavenged items.
PREDATORS: Great horned owl.
HABITAT/RANGE: Contiguous US, northern Mexico, southern Canada. Lives in burrows underground or in heavy shrubs. Very adaptable.
CONSERVATION STATUS: Least concern.
WHERE TO OBSERVE IN SB: Neighborhoods.
The striped skunk is a nocturnal mammal that is widespread and lives in a variety of habitats, including forest, woodland, grassland, and urban environments. It is very common in the United States and is often found in areas frequented by people, such as backyards, neighborhoods, and campgrounds, because of the abundance of food sources.
Striped skunks are cat-sized with a bushy tail, short legs, and a small pointed face. They are easily recognizable by their two white stripes on black fur. Their eye shine color is amber.
Being omnivores, striped skunks feed on a variety of foods. Insects are one of their main food sources, as well as other invertebrates, such as worms, snails, and crayfish. They also prey on small animals like rodents and lizards, and eat plant matter like fruit and grains. In cities, neighborhoods, and campgrounds, skunks will also scavenge food left by people, although that is not their natural diet. Their diet depends on what is available at the time.
Skunks have few natural predators. Coyotes and bobcats occasionally prey on skunks, but usually the skunk can defend itself by spraying. The only predator that is not repelled by skunk spray is the great horned owl.
Striped skunks live in burrows, which they may dig themselves or use an existing space. Examples of places skunks use as burrows are hollow logs, ground-level holes in trees, burrows made by other animals, and small spaces within thick vegetation. They are also known to live under buildings. They sleep during the day and spend the night foraging. They are often seen digging in lawns for grubs and other insects, and eating fallen fruit. If a skunk finds a beehive, it will tap on the outside to cause the bees to come out, and then eat them. (Skunks are not bothered by bee stings.)
Striped skunks mate between February and April, and males and females do not stay together. The mother gives birth to about four kits, and they follow her around so they can learn to forage. The kits often play-fight with each other outside their burrow.
Striped skunks are not aggressive, however they will defend themselves by spraying if threatened. Their musk can travel up to ten feet and is usually sufficient to deter a potential predator. If a predator or a human touches the skunk, the skunk may bite as a defense.
In the unlikely event that you do get sprayed (or your pet), see Removing Skunk Spray.
Skunks Do More Than Stink
Skunks may get a bad rap because of their ability to spray musk, but they don't really deserve it. Did you know that...
Skunks don't spray all the time or go out of their way to spray people- their musk is a defense mechanism that they only use as a last resort when a potential predator threatens them. Once they spray, it takes time for their body to replenish the musk, and this makes them extra vulnerable to predators, so they have to save it until it is absolutely necessary.
Like other wildlife, skunks are generally afraid of people, and will keep their distance. Places where skunks have become accustomed to getting food from people, such as campgrounds, are the main exception, but even in these areas, you should be able to scare a skunk away by making noise (like clapping your hands).
Skunks can indeed carry diseases like rabies, but most skunks are healthy, especially if they are acting normally. If you do see a skunk behaving aggressively, acting sick or lethargic, or coming out in the daytime, call Animal Control or a wildlife rehabilitation center like the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, as the animal may be sick.
Although skunks seem to thrive around human activity because of the supply of food, we also contribute to their mortality. Not only are car strikes common, but skunks also are sometimes euthanized when they become too used to humans from being fed. You can help protect skunks by never feeding them, deliberately or not. Feed your pets indoors, pick up food scraps when camping, and minimize other manmade attractants in your yard.
Skunks act as natural insect control, eating insect larvae from the soil that could otherwise harm your garden. They also can help keep the rodent population in check, by preying on them as well as competing with them for resources. Therefore, consider yourself lucky if you have a few skunks coexisting with you in your yard!
How to Observe Skunks
The best time to find a skunk is at dusk in the summer or late spring. Sit quietly in your backyard or a campground, or walk with a flashlight around your neighborhood, and you might see a skunk. Look around bushes and at the base of fencelines where they tend to travel, or on lawns where they dig for grubs. Keeping your distance, staying quiet, and using a red bulb in your flashlight makes the skunk less likely to notice you and run away.
In your backyard, you may be able to identify the burrows and pathways used by skunks and other nocturnal animals by looking for trampling or setting up a motion-detecting wildlife camera. Sitting quietly outside an active burrow or pathway as it gets dark may give you a good opportunity to see the animals that use it.
Image credits: Striped skunk- http://www.birdphotos.com, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0.