Figure 1. Left, the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis; right, the spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius.
The skunk, a member of the weasel family, is represented by four species in North America. The skunk has short, stocky legs and proportionately large feet equipped with well-developed claws that enable it to be very adept at digging.
The striped skunk (Figure 1) is characterized by prominent, lateral white stripes that run down its back. Its fur is otherwise jet black. Striped skunks are the most abundant of the four species. The body of the striped skunk is about the size of an ordinary house cat (up to 29 inches [74 cm] long and weighing about 8 pounds [3.6 kg] ). The spotted skunk (Fig. 1) is smaller (up to 21 inches [54 cm] long and weighing about 2.2 pounds [1 kg]), more weasel-like, and is readily distinguishable by white spots and short, broken white stripes in a dense jet-black coat.
The hooded skunk (Mephitis macroura) is identified by hair on the neck that is spread out into a ruff. It is 28 inches (71 cm) long and weighs the same as the striped skunk. It has an extremely long tail, as long as the head and body combined. The back and tail may be all white, or nearly all black, with two white side stripes. The hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus leucontus) has a long snout that is hairless for about 1 inch (2.5 cm) at the top. It is 26 inches (66 cm) long and weighs 4 pounds (1.8 kg). Its entire back and tail are white and the lower sides and belly are black. Skunks have the ability to discharge nauseating musk from the anal glands and are capable of several discharges, not just one.
General Biology, Reproduction, and Behavior
Adult skunks begin breeding in late February. Yearling females (born in the preceding year) mate in late March. Gestation usually lasts 7 to 10 weeks. Older females bear young during the first part of May, while yearling females bear young in early June. There is usually only 1 litter annually. Litters commonly consist of 4 to 6 young, but may have from 2 to 16. Younger or smaller females have smaller litters than older or larger females. The young stay with the female until fall. Both sexes mature by the following spring. The age potential for a skunk is about 10 years, but few live beyond 3 years in the wild
The normal home range of the skunk is l/2 to 2 miles (2 to 5 km) in diameter. During the breeding season, a male may travel 4 to 5 miles (6.4 to 8 km) each night. Skunks are dormant for about a month during the coldest part of winter. They may den together in winter for warmth, but generally are not sociable. They are nocturnal in habit, rather slow-moving and deliberate, and have great confidence in defending themselves against other animals.
Figure 2a. Range of the striped skunk in North America. Figure 2b. Range of the spotted skunk in North America.
The striped skunk is common throughout the United States and Canada (Fig. 2a). Spotted skunks are uncommon in some areas, but distributed throughout most of the United States and northern Mexico (Fig 2b). The hooded skunk and the hog-nosed skunk are much less common than striped and spotted skunks. Hooded skunks are limited to southwestern New Mexico and western Texas. The hog-nosed skunk is found in southern Colorado, central and southern New Mexico, the southern half of Texas, and northern Mexico
Skunks inhabit clearings, pastures, and open lands bordering forests. On prairies, skunks seek cover in the thickets and timber fringes along streams. They establish dens in hollow logs or may climb trees and use hollow limbs.
Skunks eat plant and animal foods in about equal amounts during fall and winter. They eat considerably more animal matter during spring and summer when insects, their preferred food, are more available. Grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets are the adult insects most often taken. Field and house mice are regular and important items in the skunk diet, particularly in winter. Rats, cottontail rabbits, and other small mammals are taken when other food is scarce.
James E. Knight. Extension Wildlife Specialist. Animal and Range Sciences. Montana State University. Bozeman, MT 59717