Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis
DIET: Insects, snails, eggs, rodents and other small animals, fruit, grains, scavenged items.
PREDATORS: Great horned owl.
HABITAT: Very adaptable. Lives in burrows underground or in heavy shrubs.
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 backyards.
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 eyes appear to glow an amber color at night.
Role in Food Chain
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.
Habitat and Range
Striped skunks can be found across the contiguous United States, as well as northern Mexico and southern Canada. Although they can live in many different types of habitats, they are often found in areas frequented by people, such as neighborhoods and campgrounds, because of the abundance of food sources. They 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.
Striped skunks sleep during the day and spend the night foraging. They are often seen digging in lawns for insects, and eating fallen fruit. If they find a beehive, they will tap on the outside to cause the bees to come out, and then eat them. (They are not bothered by the stingers.)
They 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 agressive, however they will defend themselves if threatened by spraying. 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.
Relationship with Humans
Skunks have a bad reputation for spraying, since many people don't realize they only spray when threatened. Because of this, many people are afraid of them and try to keep them out of their yards. (Sometimes, there is a legitimate concern, such as if a dog might go after the skunk and get sprayed.) Skunks also are known to dig holes in lawns (to forage for grubs) and make homes in inconvenient places, like under a deck. For a person who considers skunks pests, a few skunk sightings will often result in a call to the exterminator and the death of the skunk.
Cars are a major cause of skunk deaths, since the skunk doesn't have time to escape when a car comes. Many skunks do not live past their first year, partly because of this.
Skunks' taste for bees has made them unwelcome by beekeepers, since they can reduce the population of bees in hives and distract the bees from necessary behaviors. Chicken keepers also tend to dislike skunks, because they can kill chickens if flaws in the design of the coop allow them to get in.
In campgrounds, skunks become accustomed to people and will approach them for food, and have to be euthanized. This can be prevented by enforcing rules that prohibit feeding animals.
Regardless of human interventions, skunks continue to thrive. They have adapted well to living alongside people.
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 around your neighborhood, and you might see a skunk. Using a red bulb in your flashlight makes the skunk less likely to notice you and run away.