There’s more than meets the eye (and nose) when it comes to these mild- mannered creatures 

By Nicole Rivard 

Small carnivore biologist Adam Ferguson’s favorite thing about skunks is their swagger and their “I do what I want and don’t care what you think” disposition. 

Skunks certainly don’t care that they are notoriously difficult to survey in the wild, partly because getting close to them is an easy way to get sprayed, and also because some are adept tree climbers who live in remote areas. 

However, Ferguson, who works at the Field Museum in Chicago, and other researchers succeeded in studying one species and made a momentous discovery—rather than four spotted skunk species previously recognized by science, there are actually seven. Their findings were published in a 2021 study. 

Ferguson said that the discovery was “fantastic” because it will prepare scientists to better protect all skunks. Currently, the Eastern spotted skunk is being considered for Endangered Species Act protections. It was petitioned for protection in 2012 due to loss of grasslands, urbanization and persecution by humans.  

Acrobats of the skunk world 

Ferguson likes to call all spotted skunks the acrobats of the skunk world because they do a flashy, spread-eagled handstand to warn predators before they fire their stinky spray. The spray contains sulfur-based organic compounds called thiols, which let off a blast of scent reminiscent of rotten eggs—a smell that can linger for days or weeks in the fur of a predator or unlucky pet. 

“I think what would surprise people most about skunks is they have modified anal glands with a nozzle, which no other carnivores have,” Ferguson said. “This is what allows them to spray so efficiently and accurately.” 

Speaking of accuracy, skunks in general can fire a concentrated stream to neutralize an approaching threat, for example, or release a mist to engulf a pursuing predator. They can spray from one or both scent glands at a time, sometimes across impressive distances. The striped skunk can spray accurately up to 10 feet away. 

But overall skunks are mild-tempered and don’t want to use their potent defense against people or pets unless provoked. Since the substance is both time-consuming to make and potentially life-saving to have on hand, they often try to fend off minor threats in other ways before spraying. 

Jenni Dickson, wildlife biologist at the Connecticut Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection, points out skunks usually stamp their front feet and arch their tail up over their back as a warning before spraying. “It’s sort of a go away and leave me alone dance step,” she said. 

If that happens, it is best to make a slow, quiet retreat. 

Unfortunately dogs can’t decipher these warning signals, so they are often the ones on the receiving end of a frightened skunk. We never hear of cats getting sprayed by skunks. 

There are a few things you can do to minimize encounters. If you’re letting your dogs out in the yard at night, don’t just open the door and let them run free. Let the skunks know you are coming by going out and making noise. When walking your dog, don’t let them go into any bushes at night.  

The fall, winter life of a skunk 

When we think of the unmistakable smell of skunk spray wafting through the air, we think of spring and summer. But the truth is skunks are out in full force in fall fattening up for the winter. And it’s possible to see them in the winter as they do not enter a full state of hibernation. Like black bears, they enter a state of torpor—a deep sleep from which they can awake from time to time. Torpor is influenced by temperature and food availability. 

In terms of the food they eat, skunks can actually benefit humans—their diet includes many rodents and insects humans regard as pests, especially grubs, according to Ferguson. They will also eat grains, nuts, fruits, reptiles, earthworms, snails, vegetation, amphibians, birds, eggs, carrion and garbage.  

“If you want to attract skunks to your yard don’t use pesticides and instead promote insect diversity and encourage ground-nesting beetles, Ferguson said.  

For folks who are not interested in having skunks pick their house or yard for a winter den site, make sure they don’t have access under sheds, porches, etc.  

“The best thing is to ensure spaces under patios, decks, buildings are inaccessible via wire mesh, stones, etc., keeping in mind that skunks are capable, albeit reluctant, diggers,” Ferguson said. 

Some other things to consider to keep skunks away: 

  • Store pet food indoors and in airtight containers. 
  • Keep all garbage cans, especially outdoor ones, covered with secure lids. 
  • Remove wood and rock piles from your yard as skunks will often build their dens in these areas. 
  • Skunks often become trapped in window wells. A flat, wide board placed at a low angle will usually allow the animal to climb out on its own. 

Before our next issue of Action Line arrives in March, skunks will have emerged from their dens to seek a mate. Females will establish maternity dens, sometimes communally, where they raise their young at a different site than their winter burrow. And the males will spend the warm months solo.  

That conjures up image of the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew, a skunk who was always trying to win the heart of his object of affection, or Flower, from Disney’s Bambi. He is known for his timid and gentle personality and is often seen as a pacifist, trying to resolve conflicts between the other characters peacefully. 

That is just the kind of attitude humans should have toward all our woodland friends. 

Info box 

To help with pets that have been sprayed by a skunk, you can make a “Skunk Odor Solution” from common household ingredients: 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda, and 1 tsp. of liquid soap. Mix the solution only when needed. Completely soak your pet in the solution (do not get it in the eyes) and rinse thoroughly with plain water. Your dog’s fur may show a slight, temporary discoloration (due to the peroxide).