Skunks - Iowa's Musky Mammals
By Jason O'Brien
Interim ISU Extension Wildlife Specialist
Pee-Yew! It's fall and you've caught a whiff of that unmistakable pungent smell drifting on the night air that could only belong to the skunk. Skunks, now classified in the family Mephitidae, like members of its former family Mustelidae, the weasels (mink, weasel, badger, otter, etc.), emit an oily musk from their anal glands. Members of these families use musk to mark territories and den sites, and attract a mate. But, in the case of skunks, they can release a potent mist or stream, at close range and up to 20 feet, to defend themselves against predators!
Iowa has two species of skunks: the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and the spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). The latter, also known as a "civet cat", is smaller than the striped skunk, has white spots and shorter, broken white stripes against black fur, and is now listed on Iowa’s endangered species list. Little is known about where they may still be found in Iowa. With the loss of small farms, diversified agriculture, and the lack of rodent prey attracted to readily available grain, once stored in open cribs, the “civet cat” has all but disappeared from Iowa’s farms and countryside. While the striped skunk has remained on the land, biologists are uncertain why spotted skunk numbers have declined so drastically, but it very likely due to the extensive changes to Iowa's landscape over the past 50 years.
The striped skunk, on the other hand, has done very well with these changes and has easily adapted to city life, as well. Striped skunks are typically nocturnal, but during times of increased feeding, such as spring when the female is pregnant and fall, when fattening up, they can be seen earlier in the day or evening. Seeing a skunk in daylight is not necessarily an indication of rabies and should not cause undue alarm. Pay attention to the overall health and behavior of the skunk, and if it appears to be going about its business, do not disturb it and maintain a respectable distance.
Striped skunks typically have litters of 4 to 6 young born between May and June. The young stay with the female until fall, when they begin to disperse in search of their own territories and winter den sites. This behavior, known as the “fall shuffle” puts roaming skunks at risk, increasing encounters with humans, our pets, and predators. As evidence of this shuffle, notice how many road-killed skunks and raccoons you see during the fall.
Striped skunks have a very good sense of smell, and being omnivores, consume a varied diet, preferring insects and their larvae. They also consume eggs, berries and other fruits, and in winter and early spring when other food is scarce, small rodents. In late summer and fall, skunks can cause damage to lawns as they search for insect larvae, such as white grubs. The damage is distinguishable from that caused by raccoons, as the sod appears as if someone has neatly rolled it back with the intent of transplanting it elsewhere. Any control of this damage must first begin with the control of white grubs in the soil. Contact your local County Extension office or Horticulture Extension for the appropriate timing and chemicals necessary to control grubs. This feeding activity in the fall builds up fat reserves in preparation for cold weather to live off if prey is scarce and winter dormancy during severe winters. Skunks do not hibernate but will sleep for a week or two during severe winter weather.
During the fall, skunks, as well as woodchucks, raccoons, rabbits, chipmunks, opossums, etc. are all on the lookout for winter shelter. The deck or patio becomes a popular hangout for these critters, sometimes for the long run. Skunks can cause an odor problem, not to mention the damage and mess of digging. The solution is to exclude them, thus preventing access in the first place. This can be done by adding a fence below the deck, using 1/2 inch mesh hardware cloth, attaching it firmly to the deck frame and burying it 10-12 inches below ground. The picture found in the Burrowing Mammals article shows how this would look on the typical deck.
Fall is also a common time when your dog or cat, if left to wander at night, may bring home the odiferous perfume of a “not-so-romantic” encounter with a skunk. What to do? The commonly suggested bath in tomato juice fails to adequately do the job and usually just make us or pets smell like tomatoes and skunk! If you, your pet, or side of your house is ever sprayed by a skunk, there is a very effective home remedy that works on almost all surfaces. The ingredients are inexpensive and commonly found around the house.
In an open container, mix together ¼ cup baking soda, a fresh 1 quart bottle of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, and 1-2 teaspoons of liquid dish detergent. This solution must be used right away and cannot be stored. For pets and people, thoroughly work the mixture into the fur, hair, or skin, avoiding the eyes and mouth, and leave on for 5 minutes. Then rinse with fresh water and repeat if necessary.
This should eliminate the order, but avoid getting it on cloths that you don’t want bleached. Well laundered and deodorized clothing will, over time and exposure to air, lose the odor, although the garbage may be their ultimate fate way before then!
Skunks may get a bad rap for the smell, but remember to appreciate their striking pattern of black and white and their ecological role as consumers of our insect pests. And keep the hydrogen peroxide handy, just in case!
Striped Skunk - www.flickr.com © Charles & Clint
Lawn Damage - Pictures sent in by ISU Extension client from Johnston, Iowa