The Striped Skunk: A Noxious Stench

The Great Outdoors | November 2, 2023
The Striped Skunk

By Jackie Scharfenberg, Forest Naturalist, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Hissss, stomp, stomp! I’m warning you that I can spray my nasty musk over eighteen feet!

Oh, hello. You really should announce yourself when approaching a striped skunk. You could have gotten a face-full of really bad smelling oily, yellowish musk. It’s sprayed from my backside and could have temporarily blinded you. Good thing I recognized you before that happened. Our spray smells so badly that biologists named us Mephitis mephitis that translates as noxious, foul exhalation from the earth or stench (times two). Some folks call us prairie pole cats and nineteenth century fur traders labeled us Alaskan sable.

Our Appearance

My coat of glossy black fur covers most of my body. A thin white line runs along the top of my snout and forehead. A prominent white marking starts at my neck and goes down my back and then splits into a thick V-shape near my rump. White fur edges my long bushy tail. At night this provides me with warning coloration instead of camouflage.

We are about the size of average domestic cats. Males grow slightly larger than the females. Take note of our triangular-shaped heads, short ears, and black eyes.

Our Predators

Our number one predator, the great horned owl, possesses no sense of smell, so our foul-smelling spray doesn’t bother them. Other predators include hawks, eagles, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and badgers.

Our Home

After a night of foraging, we take refuge in abandoned underground dens of other mammals, but we may dig our own if needed. We may also rest in hollow logs or trees, rock or brush piles, and the underside of buildings. During the summer we prefer to stay in dens above the ground and below ground from fall to early spring.

Our range covers most of the continental United States along with southern Canada and northern Mexico. We make our homes in a variety of habitats including forests, wooded ravines, grassy plains, river lands, scrublands, suburban areas, cities, and farmlands.

Our Diet

We are not picky eaters. In summer we love to eat lots of insects. You may find where we dug for grubs which look like golfers’ divots. With our long front claws, we dig and tear apart rotten logs to search for bugs. We also forage for worms, crayfish, small mammals, eggs, ground nesting bird young, frogs, fish, and carrion. Our diet consists of 80-90 percent animals. For the other 10-20 percent, we consume seeds and fruits.

Striped skunks and humans can get along. If you give us our space and heed our warnings, I am sure we can be good neighbors.

To avoid getting sprayed take note of our warning signals. Look for our arched backs and raised tails; listen for our stomping front feet and hissing. We may even do a handstand. Then we bend our hindquarters around while still facing the intruder as we let the musk fly. Unexpected noises or movements can also cause us to spray. Usually, we remain quiet; however, in addition to our warning hisses, we can make a wide variety of sounds from low growls to bird-like chirps.

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