Mar 30, 2008

Our Stinking Polecats

Many people fear skunks.  The mere thought of getting hit with their malodorous spray is more than most can handle.  Imagine…smelling like a skunk for weeks on end.  By golly, will it ever wash off?


In reality, it’s hard to even get a skunk to spray its musky concoction.  These timid creatures would much rather run and hide than face confrontation.  Spraying is done only as a desperate last resort. 


Skunks will give multiple warning signals before releasing their powerful cologne.

The first signal a skunk will give is a handstand with its tail erect.  Next it will hiss or growl and stomp its feet very loudly.  If you’re still not intimidated, it will scratch the ground and shuffle backwards.  The “bluff” follows, with the skunk charging only to stop 5 to 6 feet away from any intruder and then stomp and scratch again.


You’re running out of options though.  When you see a skunk twist its body into a U-shape so its anus is pointed right at you, it’s time to get out of Dodge, and fast.  That’s when a skunk releases its musky perfume that no amount of tomato juice will neutralize.  But, you can’t say you weren’t warned.


Getting sprayed by a skunk isn’t just a stink-fest.  At close range the yellow, oily, acidic musk causes severe burning of the eyes and even nausea.  Recovery is quick, as nasal passages quickly become desensitized to the odor.   Who knows, you may even learn to like “eau de skunk.” 


Striped Skunks, aka stinking polecats, are members of the weasel family and found only in North America.  In late February and early March they start emerging from their dens to mate.  By mid-May, 4 to 6 young are born in underground dens, each with its own unique set of stripes.  When the young are about 7 weeks old the female takes them out to search for food, an extraordinary sight as the young follow mom about.  At about two months the young are weaned, though they remain with their mother until autumn and may even join her in the winter den.


Mostly nocturnal, skunks can be found in a variety of habitats, including farmlands, grasslands, and forests.  They have adapted well to humans and are relatively common in our neighborhoods.  These beneficial animals are true omnivores, eating a wide variety of foods including insects, worms, grubs, rodents, young rabbits, bird eggs and a smorgasbord of plants.  With more than half of their diet consisting of insects and rodents, skunks are as important to us as the Terminix man (and a lot cheaper). 


Skunks have few natural enemies, as most predators are repulsed by the odor of their musk.  Birds of prey, with their keen eyesight and poor sense of smell, will frequently dine on skunks.  In fact, skunks are the principal prey of Great Horned Owls.  Unfortunately, many skunks also meet their fate at the expense of that ultimate predator, the automobile.  Skunks in the wild are short-lived and usually don’t make it past 2 or 3 years.


So what to do in the unlikely event that a skunk sprays you or your pet?  Tomato juice won’t do anything, except make a mess.  Skunk experts recommend a recipe of one quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, a half-cup of baking soda, and a tablespoon of liquid dish soap.  This mixture changes the chemistry of skunk spray, rendering it odorless.   It’s a lot easier though to just leave skunks alone.  As long as you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you; and these amazing creatures can continue on with their inestimable pest-control measures.


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or


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