The skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is a member of the weasel family. Since its habits are well known, this rather notorious furbearer needs little description. From 1920 to the late 1940s, thousands of skunks were harvested each year. In 1939, over 95,000 pelts were taken. Now, fewer than 700 pelts per year are taken and the revenues generated are slight. Thus, the skunk is no longer of much importance to Ontario’s fur industry.
Skunks are widely distributed throughout all of North America except the Arctic. In Ontario, they are found from the Great Lakes to Hudson’s Bay.
The skunk is a cat-sized animal that usually displays a pair of white stripes on its back. The white pattern varies considerably among individuals, and may range from small patches limited to the head to large expanses covering most of the pelt. The legs are short and the body is comparatively heavy. The tail is long and bushy. A relatively small head with a pointed snout allows the skunk to poke into jars, cans and holes in search of food. The total length of adult skunks ranges from 54 to 77.5 cm (17 to 25 in). Weight ranges from 1.4 to 6 kg (3 to 13 lbs). Both the male and the female skunk have a musk gland on each side of the anal vent. This feature is common to members of the weasel family, but the ability to dispel a stream of foul-smelling liquid at adversaries is most pronounced in skunks. The stream of spray may travel 4 m (13 ft), and can go as far as 7 m (22 ft) under favourable wind conditions. The skunk’s aim is usually accurate to 2 m (6 ft).
Skunks begin mating during the first warm spell of the year. This usually occurs between late February and early March. The gestation period is 63 days, and the young are born in early May. Litters may contain from three to nine kits, or an average of six. The kits are covered with fine hair, which shows the distinctive colour pattern of the adults. Their eyes and ears are closed at birth. The eyes open about 30 days after birth, by which time the kits are able to operate their musk glands. In late June and July, the young may be spotted scampering about with their mother. The family continues its nightly feeding sorties until late fall, by which time the young are very fat. A winter den deep in the ground is selected by December. This will house the family as well as a few neighbours. If weather conditions moderate at any time during the winter, skunks may emerge from their dens.
Skunks prefer fairly open countryside with fields and hedgerows. They are not usually found in dense forests, but are tolerant of urban activity and can live in cities. Skunk dens are usually found in rock piles and groundhog holes, and underneath buildings and porches. An identifying feature of the skunk dens is the entrance hole, which is usually partly covered by grass or leaves.
Food and Feeding Behaviour
Although skunks are omnivorous, a large part of their diet consists of such insects as beetles, grubs and grasshoppers. Small mammals make up from 10 to 20 percent of their diet. Turtles, bird eggs and vegetable matter compose another 25 to 30 percent. The skunk’s habit of digging holes in lawns and gardens as it searches for insects makes it a nuisance to landowners.
Skunks are not great travellers and seldom have very extensive home ranges. The home ranges of females may overlap with those of other females, and encompass 1 to 2.5 square km (0.5 to 1 square mi). Males keep separate territories, which are usually greater than 2.5 square km (1 square mi). In winter, skunks den communally in family groups. Mainly nocturnal, skunks are also active during the dusk and dawn periods. Activity, especially during the daylight hours, with staggering movements, may be a sign of rabies. The skunk’s malodorous way of defending itself against disturbance is well known, and even the very young can spray effectively. Most animals give warning signals before spraying. They stamp their feet, raise their tails and walk in a stiff-legged position. It is believed that rabies cannot be transmitted through the spray.
The management of skunks is primarily concerned with controlling rabies. Skunks account for 20% of all rabies cases in Ontario. In the continental United States, the number of rabies cases diagnosed annually has sometimes been as high as 4,000. Since skunks frequent areas visited by foxes, raccoon, coyotes, livestock and pets, the potential for rabies transmission is considerable. Trappers should assist landowners in controlling the number of nuisance skunks, particularly in areas in which rabies is known to occur. The carcasses of trapped skunks should not be thrown away in the bush where animals might feed on them. Instead, they should be buried to prevent any risk of rabies transmission. The natural predators of the skunk are few. In the wild, only large owls appear to be effective predators of skunk, and other carnivores usually keep their distance. In populated areas, more skunks are killed by moving vehicles than by any other agent.