Technical Papers

NJ Homeowners Guide to Skunks

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 by Michael Sorrentino

Skunks are members of the weasel family. There are many different kinds of skunks around the world and four varieties in the United SkunkStates. The different varieties vary in size and pattern but they are all a vivid black-and-white which makes them easily identifiable. The variety of skunk found most prominently in New Jersey is the striped skunk.

Physical Characteristics:

The head of the striped skunk is relatively small and triangular-shaped. Its ears are short and black and its eyes are black as well. Striped skunks have a very recognizable color pattern that makes them easily distinguished from other mammals in the Northeast, however, the exact fur pattern varies depending on where a skunk lives. The majority of the skunk’s fur is black. On the top of their head they have a thin white stripe. The stripe runs from their snout to their forehead. They also have a white mark on their back. The mark on their back starts on their neck. It then runs down their back and splits into a V-shape near their buttocks. A skunk’s bushy black tail may have white hairs on the edges.

Male striped skunks are generally slightly larger than females. The average striped skunk is about the same size as a large domestic cat; however, their sizes can vary significantly. They can weigh from one and a half pounds to as much as almost fourteen pounds. Their length can also vary significantly from eighteen to thirty-two inches. During the winter a skunk’s size can change drastically; they can lose up to half of their body mass.

Diet:

Striped skunks are omnivores and are known to be opportunistic feeders, meaning they will change their diet depending on the availability of food. The majority of their food is from animals. In fact, it is believed that the average skunk’s diet is made up of almost ninety percent meat. In the spring and summer the majority of their diet is made up of insects. They feed on various varieties of grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, larvae, and bees. They also eat invertebrates including crayfish, worms, and other non-insect arthropods when they are available. During the winter their diet consists of mostly small mammals such as field mice and voles as well as eggs and the young of ground-nesting birds. A smaller section of their diet is made up of amphibians, reptiles, carrion, and fish. Even though the majority of their diet is meat based, they still eat plant matter when in season. The most common plants that skunks eat are corn, nightshade, and fruits such as black and ground cherries.

Reproduction:

A striped skunk usually stays within a two mile range of its den, however during the breeding season, a male may travel up to five miles in a night in order to find a receptive female. Striped skunks are polygamous. Female skunks have one mate per year, however, males will mate with a number of different females during the breeding season. After skunks mate, the female will no longer associate with the male and will actually become aggressive towards it.

Male and female skunks will begin mating in late February and the breeding season will continue through late March. Older females usually give birth to their young during the first part of May, whereas yearling females usually give birth to their kits in early June. Skunks rarely have more than one litter per year with the average litter consisting of four to six kits.

Striped skunks are born small, helpless, blind, and with little hair. Each kit weighs a little over an ounce at birth. Even though they have very little hair, the black and white pattern of their future coat is present. The kits keep their eyes closed for approximately three weeks. They are not weaned until they are seven weeks old. When they are approximately seven weeks old the kits begin to follow their mother out of the den to learn to forage and hunt. The male kits become independent by July or August, while the female kits may remain with their mother until the following spring. Both male and female young become sexually mature around ten months of age. Most skunks do not survive their first year because of weather conditions and disease, but those who do survive can live up to seven years

Predators:

In New Jersey the striped skunk has few natural predators due to its relatively large size and its ability to use spray to defend itself. Although the skunk’s spray does not usually cause permanent damage to its victims, it makes them very uncomfortable, can linger for many days, and can be very difficult to remove. As a defensive technique, the spray is very effective. Predators typically give skunks a wide berth unless little other food is available. Large birds of prey are known to eat skunk. The birds seem unaffected by the skunk’s odorous musk. In New Jersey great horned owls, red tail hawks, and eagles are all possible predators. The skunk’s spray keeps most mammals away. Mammalian species known to prey on them include mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and badgers, however, only fox and coyotes are common in some parts of New Jersey and they are not found at all in some sections of the state.

Behavior:

Skunks are nocturnal. They begin their activity around twilight and may continue until daybreak. They are slow-moving, docile and often ignore other animals as they forage. Skunks are well known for their defensive behavior. All carnivores have scent glands but skunks scent glands are relatively large. They can spray their offensive musk up to twenty feet. The musk may cause nausea, intense pain, and temporary blindness. When approached by a perceived predator, the skunk will arch its back, raise its tail and stomp the ground as a warning. If the person or animal does not leave immediately, the skunk will bend its hindquarters around, while still facing the predator, and spray. Unexpected noises can also cause a skunk to spray.

Skunks rarely make their own burrows. In most cases, skunks nest in burrows constructed by other animals. If an already constructed burrow is not available, skunks will live in hollow logs or even manmade structures. In areas with cold winters, they will rest in dens above ground in the summer and below ground in the fall to early spring. Skunks do not hibernate, but they will stay dormant in their dens for a month during the coldest part of winter. Although they have been known to den together in winter for warmth, they are not normally sociable animals.

Habitat:

Striped skunks have a range spanning most of North America. Skunks prefer to inhabit clearings, pastures, and open lands bordering forests. With the increase in suburban neighborhoods, skunks are being found in populated neighborhoods as well as farming areas.

Danger from Skunks:

Skunks are a rabies vector species which means skunks have greater chance of having rabies than many other species in the area. When a skunk becomes infected with the virus, it may not be apparent for many days. Although rabies is not very common in the area, any skunk displaying abnormal behavior, such as daytime activity or aggression should be treated with a great deal of caution.