Wildlife

Why You Are Smelling Skunks This Week

August 31, 2016

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Baby Skunk. Photo © Paul Berquist

On my drive to work this morning, I caught an unpleasant whiff of striped skunk several times. For the past week, skunk musk has assaulted my nostrils with increasing regularity. Perhaps you’ve noticed the same thing.

No, there isn’t a sudden population explosion of skunks. It’s all tied to their behavior. There are indeed times of the year when you’re more likely to smell a skunk. Here’s why.

Striped skunks are solitary, nocturnal critters. Despite thriving alongside humanity, they generally stay out of sight and out of mind. Given their propensity for spraying musk when threatened, you might think – given the high population likely living near you – you’d smell them all the time. Skunks spray as a last resort, and their survival depends on them being somewhat secretive.

But at times, they become very noticeable – sometimes due to their behavior and sometimes due to ours.

Striped skunks give birth to a litter of young, called kits, in the early spring. The kits are born naked, blind and helpless. The mother skunk goes out hunting and foraging and brings food back to the den until the skunks are two months old. Then they start joining her on forays, learning to dig insects and perhaps locate your garbage.

Being solitary, it is soon time for the young skunks to disperse. Depending on where you live, that’s right about now. So there are lots of young, relatively inexperienced skunks roaming around.

Skunk and cactus. Photo © Paul Berquist
Skunk and cactus. Photo © Paul Berquist

As I think back on skunk encounters, I’m struck by how often I have encountered them in August and September. I recall the night as a youngster I heard some rustling in our backyard. I led my mom and brother on my first of many night safaris. Suddenly a rather perturbed skunk appeared in my flashlight beam. I turned and ran, nearly knocking my mom over — and leaving my light-free family members to face the skunk in the dark. I still hear about my cowardice to this day.

Still, young skunks find themselves in much bigger trouble. The human environment offers no shortage of food: unattended pet food, garbage and litter, grubs and other insects, house mice, backyard poultry and their eggs, and other delicacies. Some skunks even specialize in bee hives, with mothers teaching young techniques for effectively extracting honey.

Suburbia is filled with potential den sites, with spaces under sheds, decks and homes providing ideal skunk condos.

This seeming skunk utopia comes with risks. The first is dogs. While coyotes, badgers and other predators avoid skunks, dogs have not gotten the memo. They attack skunks with abandon, leaving you to douse them with tomato juice or other concoctions that won’t work. (Interestingly, one suburban predator that successfully targets skunks is the great-horned owl. One notable owl nest contained nearly 60 skunks!).

An even bigger problem for skunks is roads. Skunks possess excellent senses of smell and hearing, but have poor eyesight. They are poorly equipped to deal with a car going 35 miles per hour.

Right now, a lot of young skunks are dealing with dogs and cars for the first time. You will smell the results.

Striped Skunks searching for insects. Photo © Marty Cordano
Striped Skunks searching for insects. Photo © Marty Cordano

There’s one other time of year when you’re more apt to smell these animals. That’s February, the mating season. Male skunks are fighting. Female skunks may be shooing away males they don’t want to mate with. All this stressful activity causes some musk to be deposited. It’s not as strong as you will find along the road: you might detect a slight skunky aroma emitting from under your shed in February. That’s from skunk activity.

You may not have even realized a skunk was living under your shed until this point.

The rest of the year, the most noticeable sign is when they dig in your yard. They leave small, circular holes around the yard. But they’re ridding your lawn of grubs.

Despite their bad reputation, striped skunks are actually low-key, low-maintenance neighbors.

Just keep an eye out for skunks on the road the next few weeks (actually, it’s a good idea to drive with wildlife in mind at any time of year). Tend your dog, your garbage and your chickens (also a good idea). And if you go out on a night safari in your neighborhood, make sure the whole family has flashlights.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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50 comments

  1. I still love skunks, despite being sprayed in the eyeball a while back during a live-trapping program.

  2. 16 oz of hydrogen peroxide
    1/4 cup baking soda
    2 tablespoons dish soap

    Works pretty well. My dog has been sprayed twice in the last month!!!

  3. Ahh thanks this explains so much!
    My poor dog learned the hard way one August, and I can tell you the peroxide/soda/soap mix works – apply while still fizzing, but not on the face.

  4. Thanks for sharing this! I had a momma and 2 babies living under my shed and would see them out at night. now I only see 1 of the young skunks living there now and wondered what happen to the other sibling and the mother. I guess that explains it. I thought about having pest control remove it but I’m not sure what they do with it so I guess I’ll let it live under my shed and and make holes in my yard and flower beds..they are cute!

    1. Pest control would kill the skunks, some of them shoot wildlife or drown them while in the trap. Even when pest control say they don’t kill them and they release them this is not true.

  5. Wow, great article – thank you! I’ve been smelling and seeing (unfortunately on the roads) more skunks than usual. I am happy to have a healthy population near my house, but very rarely do I smell them. So many critters are misunderstood.

  6. Tomato juice does work, I owned a Irish setter mix that got sprayed every year . I I’ve spent every spring buying cans of tomato juice.

  7. I love skunks. Never had a problem with them. Just back away and don’t bother them.

  8. I hope this makes everyone be more sympathetic to our skunk population. When I get upset over the skunk smell or deer eating my vegetable garden , I remind myself that we took their habitat.

  9. I have a young skunk that comes out of the woods at night and eats cat food. The cats ignore him and I sit quietly in my chair. It seems to only be afraid of the raccoons. I moved bowl of food up by his path so he doesn’t have to come down here. What else does he eat? Fruit? Veggies.

    1. Hi Ingrid,
      Thank you for your comment. I know it is enjoyable to watch wild animals feeding, but it is really best for the skunk if you do not feed it. The skunk will be quite adept at finding food on its own. If you feed wildlife, you could make it dependent or acclimated to people. This rarely ends well. It might visit a neighbor who is not tolerant of skunks, which could lead to the skunk’s death. It could also put the skunk in proximity of children and dogs. Skunks are very adaptable — and it will be happy to forage for grubs and other food nearby.

      1. Your advise against feeding wild animals is not uncommon. There is another point of view.

        Feeding wild animals is like having a pet that one allows outdoors, unless you also believe no pets should leave the house. Permanent prison punctuated by escapes.

        “Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking: Well, at least I’m not dead.”

        ― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

  10. There is a resident skunk in my yard most evenings, and my cats interact with it regularly. The female cat will get aggressive with the skunk if I come outside when the skunk is present. They both engage in stiff postures, and the skunk always finds means to exit the area without spraying. It is very cear, skunks only spray when threatened with serious harm. It clearly takes more than a threat. Spraying is judicious protection against physical injury .

  11. I have owned very few dogs but have had several friends dogs, who were riding with me on hunting trips, that did not get the skunk memo 🙂

    Given their propensity for cats, rabbits and other nocturnally active small mammals skunks are a natural part of the silent and powerful Great Horned Owl’s diet.

    Great visual portrayed of your first night safari.

    Thanks for the driving with critter awareness reminder!!

  12. Thanks for the great information. I have a mama skunk we named Panda and her two babies living under our front porch. The baby’s names are Licorice and Oreo. They don’t bother our cats. They come out in the evening and do their skunk thing of digging in the ivy and picking up any peanuts the squirrels left behind.
    They are fun to watch and they do no harm. We just fill in the holes they dig. They run away if they here us walking in the yard.
    I’m glad they came to live in our yard. I hope they stay safe during this time of year.

  13. we rescued albert/albertina during one horribly hot late summer…he/she was wonderfully smart and very understanding. we set up an umbrella for shade and fed him/her tomatoes and fruit and water. also an ice drip to help keep him/her cool…i made the “pest control” officer SWEAR on his mother’s life that he would release him/her into a safe skunk area. he did…and i can still hear him swearing at me because we had fed him/her and he/she sprayed him and got away. he/she was the dearest sweetest wild thing i’d ever met. i think of him/her still…

  14. I like skunks and do respect them ,but I enjoy seeing them and keep my distance.

  15. Thanks Matt. It’s like you’ve read my mind. We’ve been encountering skunk scent often lately and I was wondering what was up. My dogs have always confronted skunks at all the wrong times – as if there are good times – like when someone is dog sitting for us or after an already drama filled night when all I wanted to do was sleep instead of standing in the snow in sub zero weather pouring tomato juice over a perplexed dog.

  16. Seems my 5 year old Chihuahua Milo thinks they are something that has come to play with him. He has had at least 7 encounters with the smelly “cats”. 3 of them this summer alone. He doesn’t seem to equate them with the discomfort, and smell, as well as the baths late at night. Although the peroxcide, baking soda, soap works we found a product called Skunk Odor Remover by Natures Miracle is ver effective as well.

  17. I’m often amazed when the same neighbors who toss dinner scraps, fruit and vegetables onto a “compost pile” complain of skunk, opossum and raccoon “invasions”.

  18. Excellent article. We learned a great deal about Skunks. We once a had a friend that had skunk as a pet, she lived in New England ( Connecticut). It got loose outside in the yard. When she saw this skunk she was not sure if it was her pet?? A young boy, about 8 years old came up to the skunk and stamped his foot and when he didn’t react, he said, he’s not for real.

  19. Great article! Thank you. My skunks must have gotten used to my pet less 4 acres and I can always tell when they have been around… Not odor but thier digging! Certain areas year after year that can not be attributed to another critter.

  20. In Maine we lived in a house surrounded by vegetation and skunks (thanks to a neighbor’s garbage). We ignored them, and they ignored us. We could hear them rustling in the flower beds as we walked by, and I once stood about six feet from two skunks chasing each other around a tree (probably in February…). I watched until I got bored, and then I walked away…totally ignored. The only problem was when one decided to sit on our stoop, and we had to sit in the car until it decided to leave. I never once got a whiff of musk in the five years that we lived there.

  21. Not all of us find the smell of sunk to be objectionable. Any odor that is overwhelmingly strong is repellent, but I find a light whiff of fresh skunk to be a complex and rich aroma. The interesting qualities of the odor degrade after a day in the hot sun on the roadside, but try giving the smell a chance next time you encounter a waft of skunk on the breeze before going straight to, “Ewwwww”.

  22. I recently put up a bird feeder with dried mealworms, and I haven’t seen the birds going for it but someone is eating it when I’m not looking. I started wondering about skunks, although I haven’t smelled them. What do you think?

  23. I have a couple of small young skunks living under my side porch. I see them occasionally and they are the CUTEST things!!!! I feed my old cat on that porch and I call the cuties my “cleanup crew”…. The poor cat has such trouble eating that he makes a mess, so the little guys clean it all up. I would love to cuddle them but……. Actually I have not noticed any smell at all!! I’m enjoying them a lot……

  24. Matt:
    You are so correct; in fact we saw what we believe was a young’un last night. Heshe must’ve been out foraging around a dead tree in the yard. Whenever possible we leave the limbs and trunk when we absolutely have to “cut”. We are in NE Tennessee.
    Enjoyed the story and we wondered what there call was like; ever now and again we hear a sort of high pitched squeal when it seems two of them encounter each other. Pretty sure it isn’t raccoons.

  25. How do you try and get rid of them from your property? Is there some odor they don’t like?? They are living under my barn which has a stone foundation that they easily get around!

  26. Excellent article, I enjoyed it. Skunks are the not the devils they get portrayed to be. Many people believe every skunk is carrying rabies and this is simply not true. I actually like them except when they get stinky!

  27. This is good to know. Enjoyable reading!
    I remember when I was around 3 yrs. or 4 yrs. old riding over a Mt. in Tennessee with my parents on a cool enough night for the heater in the car to be on. My dad yelled!!!! Then screamed “Pole CAT”. I had visions of a cat on a pole my father had hit. But momma explained as the smell quickly engulfed the inside of the car and we had to ride with windows down the whole way home.

  28. A great article; thanks, Matt!

    I on the outskirts of the city limits here in Baton Rouge. My 3-street subdivision has large (1+ acres) lots. Behind my property are a few acres of servitude bordered by a large creek. Lots of tall grass, large trees – just where you would think skunks would make home. And they have. At night when I walk my dog I have to keep him on a leash. It is not unusual that I see (and smell) skunks crossing the street, digging in my and other yards. They are so cute to look at, but that is where cute stops. My Dachshund has slipped his leash and tangled with them a few times. He still hasn’t learned!!
    Because their natural habitat surrounding our city is being taken from them for development, they are being pushed into residential areas in greater numbers. I guess we are going to have to live with them.
    Same with coyotes; they too have been pushed into our residential areas. I hear them most nights “laughing” and howling. They have become somewhat used to humans so I frequently see them crossing the back of my property during the day. Sure wish they had a taste for skunk!
    Thanks for your informative article.
    Warmest regards.

  29. Here in Colorado, when I would stop at a red light, I used to be sure when I smelled a skunk, now I’m not so sure.

  30. We have one that comes into my yard that is almost white, It’s about 3 or 4 years now that we see her. It eats the bird seed that falls from the feeder, I also let some of the corn out that we put out for the squirrels and deer.

  31. Many years ago when we lived in Maine, I noticed that one of our young cats smelled slightly of skunk.
    As we returned from an evening trip to town we saw the reason for Freddy’s slight aroma. There was a family of skunks playing in our front pasture and Freddy was playing right there with them. What a sight!

  32. We were setting up a garage sale one evening when our dog started playing with 2 baby skunks nearby. We were horrified, no spray was emitted from his new friends (too young, we figured with relief ) . After we put the dog in the house, all seemed safe. A few weeks later, Jazzy encountered his “friends” and.started to play, only getting totally sprayed. The tomato juice didn’t work, but the pet store had a “stunk spray wash”. Jazzy and cute skunks lost their friendship!

  33. One of the favorite foods of skunks is yellow jackets. These stinging terrors nest in the ground and are sometimes called ground bees. Skunks love to dig into their nests and eat the larva. During a building boom in the ’50s in Yorktown NY, the skunks had been chased away by the noise and activity and yellow jackets took over. It was scary just going outside. The town actually imported skunks to provide relief.

  34. I live where skunks are very common. In fact, I sometimes see a mother and her kittens walking single file just across the creek from my house. However, just as all that glitters is not gold, all that smells like that is not necessarily a skunk. When you “smell a skunk” in August or September, it is often not an animal, but a plant: cannabis. It is at its most fragrant at the same time that young, inexperienced skunks are encountering dogs and cars, and the average person cannot tell the difference between the two scents.

  35. Hi!
    I have a 8 month old male skunk…
    It’s mom got hit by a car and I saved him!
    He is an angel but needs more; he wants to explore and he has been in my kitchen living amongst myself two children two dogs and a cat!
    He wants to go…… but he has never fed himself or he is not afraid of dogs and people etc!
    I feel bad for him; does anyone have any suggestions on where I could possibly take him to live out his life?
    (his name is Romeo)

    1. Hi Deanne, I suggest looking for a wildlife rehabilitation center near you and calling them for advice. Thank you!

  36. Matt,
    I’ve been keeping a few hives in my backyard for almost twenty years. Skunks do occasionally bother the hives, but only by standing by the entrance at night and eating bees as they come out to investigate or defend. I have never heard of skunks eating honey. How would they get into the hive to get at the honey? Are you sure about that? Nothing in any beekeeping books that I’ve read about them eating honey, just bees.
    Geoff

  37. Please mention that outdoor cats also play a role in this. Sometimes more so than dogs.