Scientific name: Mephitis mephitis
The striped skunk is an interesting component of New York's wildlife assortment. It is about the size of a house cat and has a potent musk that often overshadows the beauty of its glossy and durable fur. Formerly a member of the weasel family (with mink, otter, fisher, marten), skunks have now been classified into their own family, "Mephitidae". Like the more glamorous members of the weasel family, the skunk also has glossy and durable fur that can be dyed uniformly black for exquisite garment trimming.
The skunk's best known feature is its ability to squirt an extremely potent and disagreeable secretion at potential attackers. The Latin name for skunk, Mephitis mephitis, means "double foul odor."
Distribution and Habitat
The skunk lives in a variety of habitats but prefers open areas. Its numbers usually decline as abandoned fields and pastures become forested. However, roadside and lawn mowing, or any maintenance practice which prevents the development of a forest canopy, favors the continued existence of skunks. Residential areas that have both lawns and large, mast producing shade trees often provide optimal habitat for skunks.
Biology and Behavior
Striped skunks mate in February and early March. Females give birth in May, often in woodchuck burrows, to an average litter of six. It is not unusual to see a female skunk with a line of little black and white copies following her across a damp pasture or lawn on an early July morning.
Skunks forage at night or at dawn for a variety of foods including berries, grasses, nuts and other vegetable material, as well as worms, insects, grubs and the nestlings of birds, mice and cottontail rabbits. They also prey on woodchucks and other young animals in burrows. Skunks often leave holes in the ground where they forage for insects or tear apart ground nests of small animals.
Although skunks in New York retreat to winter dens and remain inactive for extended periods, they do not hibernate. Males in particular are likely to be active aboveground periodically. They may be active even during cold weather, especially during the breeding season.
Skunks are vulnerable to a variety of internal and external parasites. They also can get and spread rabies and other wildlife diseases. Skunks have been the most commonly confirmed rabies species, other than raccoons, during the spread of raccoon rabies throughout Southern New York. Coyotes, foxes, owls, bobcat and fisher will prey on skunks, and collisions with cars are a common cause of skunk deaths.
The striped skunk can be a difficult neighbor because of its fearlessness and effective weaponry. One of the most common skunk complaints, a strong odor of skunk essence during the nights of early fall, often is the result of inadequate home maintenance and of allowing dogs to roam free at night.
This happens in early fall because skunks search for cubby holes to spend the winter. Damaged building foundations and spaces underneath porches serve this purpose well. A free roaming dog often aggravates the situation by chasing the prowling skunk. The resultant "dog training lesson" can offend a whole neighborhood. The remedy is to close or screen all holes and crawl spaces, and to keep dogs confined.
An interesting side note is that house cats tolerate the presence of skunks. In the days of small dairy farms, several dozen barn cats often ate from the same pan of milk after each milking. Many a farmer arrived to pour the dregs of the milk strainer into the cat dish and found that one of the cats had a broad tail and a characteristic white "V" across its back. For this reason, it is not wise to feed a house cat outside your home after dark.
Handling Trapped Skunks
A beginning fox and raccoon trapper may be dismayed upon finding a skunk in a trap set in a pasture or meadow. Likewise for a homeowner or nuisance wildlife control agent who finds a skunk in the box trap set in the backyard. Surprisingly, a skunk seldom sprays when caught in a foothold or box trap. Moving a skunk in a box trap is easy if you cover the trap with a dark blanket so the animal can't see you. Transport the covered trap without too much jostling, and the animal will not spray.
The striped skunk has been protected under the Environmental Conservation Law since the late 1800s. Perhaps the value of skunk musk to the perfume industry, combined with the commercial use of their pelts, caused early legislators to give skunks special consideration.
You may have heard that pelts of the striped skunk once were more valuable than they are in the current fur market. A strong market for fur-trimmed cloth coats developed in the late 1930s as our country recovered from the Great Depression. Striped skunk is ideally suited for this purpose because the white hairs of the pelt become a uniform, glossy black when dyed. Skunk pelt prices may have doubled from about 1939 through the early 1940s, but they were never as valuable as red fox. Although a market still exists, it is not as vigorous as it once was.
Protection and promoting general public awareness of a species is a good way to secure its status. Each year the New York State hunting and trapping regulation guides remind hunters and trappers that the striped skunk is a valuable furbearing resource. The regulations allow only a limited, open harvest season. This type of regulatory protection has been successful. The striped skunk is abundant in New York and its populations are secure.