The striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
and the western spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis)
This week’s crawly is an adorable little stinker. Meet our local skunks – the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and the western spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis).
Both our skunk species are in the Family Mephitidae which contains the four species of skunks and stink badgers. Lucky for us two out of the four are native to and found throughout North America.
“Lucky” wasn’t a typo. Admittedly no one likes it when their dog gets skunked (been there, done that – but to be fair the dog deserved it). However, skunks are very beneficial critters. They feed on large numbers of agricultural and garden pests.
Skunks have a broad diet. Their favorite foods include mice, moles, voles, rats and carcasses. Also, grasshoppers, wasps, bees, crickets, beetles and beetle larvae. Worth keeping the dogs in to let skunks chow down in your yard at night.
Skunks also eat berries and seeds and aren’t above digging through garbage cans and raiding bird feeders.
Both striped and spotted skunks can be found throughout our area. Okay, finding a spotted skunk is a bit like finding a unicorn, but they do exist, and they are here.
In addition to the differences in their markings, striped and spotted skunks differ a lot in size. Striped skunks are much larger, ranging from 18 – 32 inches. Usually they are described as “house cat” sized.
Spotted skunks are positively petite by comparison. In fact, at 14 – 18 inches they are the smallest members of the skunk family.
While both species of skunk are mild tempered, spotted skunks are highly secretive, unlike their bolder striped cousins.
Striped skunks are so chill they ignore other animals, and humans and can get very close. Skunks have poor eyesight and will often approach you unknowingly. A friend of mine had a skunk come up and just walk right over her foot while she was standing in a field taking photos.
Skunks can afford to be sweet tempered because they have very few natural enemies. Very, very hungry coyotes, foxes, bobcats and cougars will sometimes brave dining on skunk. Large owls such as great horned owls have a poor sense of smell, so they too will go after skunks. Of course, domestic dogs also kill skunks – and pay the price.
However, even cougars will yield to a skunk unless they really need a meal, so skunks move through the world with confidence.
While skunks can spray that noxious spray up to 6 feet – with the mist traveling even further – they only do so as a last defensive resort. It takes them quite a while to “reload” as it were, and they try several other tactics to scare off potential predators before blasting the stink bomb.
So, if a skunk approaches you, don’t make any sudden moves that appear threatening. Stay still or back away slowly. Skunks will let you know if they feel threatened first by facing you, arching their back, raising their tail and stomping with their front feet (try not to shake too much as you laugh at this adorable display!) They may also go into a handstand as they stomp and back away.
If all that doesn’t work, the skunk will aim their hindquarters at the predator – that would be the time to just RUN.
Skunk musk acts as an irritant to the senses and has been documented to cause nausea, intense pain and temporary blindness.
Skunks are less active in winter and will hold up in their dens during the coldest days and nights between now and spring.
While they can be found throughout our area, individual skunks have a small range and are almost always found within two miles of water. Of course, that’s just about everywhere in our “backyard.”
During their spring mating season, male skunks especially are not quite as amenable as they are the rest of the year. Hormones and all. This is why we see so many as roadkill in spring; they fail to look twice before crossing when they’re out to woo a lady.
Female skunks do the child rearing. They’ll have one litter per year between February and April (depending on the weather). The litter will be between five and seven kits. Many of those cute kits won’t survive their first year.
Despite their lack of predators most skunks only live two to five years in the wild, some hitting the ripe old age of seven. This is partially due to their propensity for being roadkill, but also due to disease, predation and being hunted by humans.
If you’d like to see some de-scented skunks up close and personal, you may be able to see them at Wildlife Images in Grants Pass.
Note: the facility is temporarily closed until February 2024, and you’ll want to call ahead to see if they currently have skunk ambassadors.
It’s a bit more of a drive, but worth it, to see spotted skunks. There is a pair at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, Calif. A great day trip for families, adults and children of all ages.