How to coexist with skunks

We’re all just trying to live our best life

Skunks are well-known for one reason and one reason only — their most-impressive defense mechanism of discharging a noxious spray to keep potential threats at bay.

But if you can look beyond this off-putting behavior, skunks are interesting creatures. The distinct markings — black with a narrow white stripe on their back that extends to their shoulders and splits into two stripes — make them easy to recognize. The striped skunk that is common in Illinois is one of several skunk species native to the Americas, but it is the only one native to Illinois.

Skunks are mostly nocturnal, although they are occasionally active in early morning or early evening, according to Wildlife Illinois. They’re slow and docile, making their well-known defense mechanism all the more important.

They are common across Illinois, and they are most abundant in areas with a mixture of pastures, woods and agricultural land. Their populations are also high in more urban areas, especially those near railroads and high-tension power lines, because they provide routes for travel and also denning sites.

Ecological effects

A skunk walks towards the camera.

A skunk’s diet consists of mostly insects, especially in spring and summer, which is beneficial to humans because they help control nuisance insect populations. Insects they commonly eat include bees, beetles and grasshoppers, according to IDNR. They also eat insects that cause problems in our gardens. Other foods include mice, ground squirrels, birds and bird eggs, and they also sometimes eat carrion, which helps keep the ecosystem clean and healthy.

They are not hunted by many animals, because of their foul-smelling spray. Among the only animals that will hunt skunks are great horned owls, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Mating and reproduction

A group of skunks sitting on a log.

Mating season for skunks runs from February through March, with babies born from early May to early June, Wildlife Illinois reports. Litters can have between four and 10 babies, and they are born mostly hairless but with their black-and-white markings still visible. Siblings from the same litter do not share markings, and their stripes can be highly variable.

Baby skunks grow quickly, reaching full size by about 10 months. When they are about 7 weeks old they will begin venturing out of their dens with their mothers. They are weaned when they are about 2 months old. In the fall, they will leave their mother’s den to live on their own.

Health risks

A skunk on a trail.

Skunks can be carriers of several diseases, including rabies, and these diseases can be transmitted to humans and other animals, including pets, Animal Diversity Web reports. In addition to rabies, they can be carriers of distemper, leptospirosis, Q fever, listeriosis, pulmonary aspergillosis, pleuritis, ringworm, murine typhus, tularemia, Chagas' disease and canine parvovirus.

Problems and solutions

A skunk with its tail up.

The primary nuisance concern with skunks is their spray they use as a defense mechanism, which has a noxious odor that can be difficult to remove from skin, hair, clothing and pet fur. They do, though, give off plenty of warnings before unleashing their spray, according to Wildlife Illinois. First, they will lift their tails, stamp their feet and hiss and growl. They may do this several times before going to their last resort: turning around, lifting their rear legs and letting rip with the noxious spray.

When it comes to removing the skunky odor, skip the tomato juice. The best solution for removing the spray is 1 quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of liquid dish soap, Wildlife Illinois advises. Combine these three ingredients together (do not add water) and mix well, then apply to skin, hair, clothing or fur that have been sprayed, taking care not to get it in or near the eyes. One note: The solution may cause discoloration of cloth fabric and may lighten a pet’s fur.

Skunks can also pose problems because they are a disease vector. The main concern is rabies; signs of rabies in skunks include seizures, uncoordinated movements and loss of fear of people, Wildlife Illinois reports. If you think a skunk has rabies, contact your county animal control office.

Skunks also sometimes get into garbage cans and burrow under buildings and decks. You can help keep skunks at bay by tightly securing all garbage cans and sealing off any openings to your foundation or securing openings with mesh, concrete or sheet metal, Wildlife Illinois advises.

If animals on your property continue to cause damage after corrective measures have been taken, consider humanely removing and relocating them only as a last resort. Trapping a skunk to remove it from your property requires a permit from IDNR. If you do not want to remove it yourself, contact a licensed wildlife control operator to contract their services.

All wildlife in Illinois are under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The Forest Preserve District of Will County does not treat, rescue or remove wildlife from public or private property. Both the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife Illinois maintain lists of wildlife rehabilitators you can contact for assistance with injured wildlife. 

(Photos via Shutterstock)

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