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  Striped Skunk- Scientific name Mephitis mephitis 

Distribution & Abundance  |  Habitat  |  Habits  |  Foods  |  Reproduction  |  Conservation

Striped skunk photo by Illinois DNRA striped skunk is about the size of a domestic cat, but its legs are much shorter. Total length ranges from 20 to 30 inches. Males vary in weight from 3 to 11.7 pounds. Females tend to be smaller, usually 2.6 to 8.6 pounds. The skunk has a triangular-shaped head that tapers to a rounded, nearly ball-shaped nose. Its ears are small and rounded and its eyes are small, black, and beady. The front feet are each equipped with five toes that have long, curved claws. Toes on the hind feet have shorter, straighter claws. A skunk's tail is long and bushy.

Most of the head and body are glossy black. A narrow white stripe extends from the top of the nose to the forehead. A white patch on the back of the neck tapers into a single white stripe that extends to the shoulders then splits into two stripes that continue down the top or sides of the back. Other markings include some white hairs in the tail and occasionally a small white patch on the chest.

Skunks discharge an obnoxious scent when provoked. This scent or musk is secreted by two internal glands located at the base of the tail. The glands open to the outside through small nipples which are hidden when the tail is down and exposed when it's raised. A skunk has voluntary control over the glands and can control the direction in which the musk is discharged. The glands contain about one tablespoon of thick, volatile, yellowish, oily liquid. This musk (the chemical name is butylmercaptan) has been detected at distances of up to 20 miles away from where it was discharged. The compound is painful to the eyes, but does not cause permanent blindness.

Distribution & Abundance
Striped skunks are common and found throughout Illinois. Rural areas with rolling hills or bluffs and a mixture of farmland, timber and pastureland tend to support the highest numbers. Striped skunks are abundant in some urban areas, especially those located along railroads or high-tension power lines because these features provide travelways and denning sites. Outbreaks of diseases like rabies and distemper can cause a striped skunk population to decline sharply. Overall, this species is probably less common now than it was 50 years ago because small cattle operations and small grain farming have given way to larger, less diverse crop farms.

Striped skunks use a wide variety of habitats but prefer forest borders, brushy areas, and open, grassy fields broken by wooded ravines and rock formations. Permanent water is usually close by. Skunks can dig their own dens, but prefer to use those excavated by badgers, woodchucks, or other animals. Den sites also include stumps, caves, rock piles, old buildings, junk piles, sheds, wood piles and dry drainage tiles or storm sewers.

Striped skunks are active at night and occasionally during the daylight hours of early morning or late evening. They live in an area 1 to 1 1/2 miles in diameter, but use only a small part of this on any given night. While skunks aren't likely to move long distances, some have traveled as far as six miles away from where they were captured.

Skunks are slow-moving and docile. Their senses of sight, hearing, and smell are poor compared to many predators. When cornered or pursued closely, they usually face the intruder, arch their backs, raise their tails, and stamp the ground with their front feet. If a skunk's warning is ignored, it turns around with its tail raised and facing the threat so that it's in a good position for discharging its musk. Most predators avoid skunks, but domestic dogs, coyotes, badgers and great-horned owls kill a few. Diseases, vehicles and farm machinery are more important sources of mortality.

Striped skunks eat a lot during the fall and build a thick layer of fat by the end of October. Building a fat reserve provides energy through the winter when they spend most of their time sleeping inside dens. Skunks are not true hibernators. They venture out of their dens for short distances when temperatures are near the freezing mark and snow conditions are favorable. As many as 10 skunks have been found together in some winter dens, but many live alone.

Skunks eat equal amounts of plant and animal foods during fall and winter. Insects are their preferred food, and make up the bulk of their diet in spring and summer. Bees, grasshoppers and beetles are common fare. Skunks also eat mice, young rabbits, ground squirrels, voles, birds and bird eggs. Plant foods include corn, black cherries, nightshades and ground-cherries. Skunks sometimes eat carrion.

Skunks often dig for grubs (the immature life stage of beetles), leaving conical holes 2 to 3 inches across and about as deep. Removal of these pests is beneficial to humans. However, the holes can be unsightly on golf courses and residential lawns. Yards that are fertilized and watered throughout the summer tend to have more grubs and provide good feeding areas for skunks. Using an approved pesticide that kills the grubs usually solves the problem by sending the skunks somewhere else to look for food.

Breeding begins in February and lasts through March. The pregnancy period ranges from 62 to 72 days. A single litter of four to 10 young is born from early May to early June. Newborns don't have much hair, but still show faint black and white color markings. Litter mates can have different patterns, ranging from broad white stripes to nearly no stripes at all. Young skunks begin to leave the den and take short trips with their mother by late June or early July. They grow rapidly, nearing adult size by their tenth month.

Little habitat management occurs specifically for striped skunks. Practices aimed at improving conditions for wildlife like the pheasant, bobwhite quail and eastern meadowlark are good for skunks as well. Soil conservation measures supported by the Conservation Reserve Program provide benefits for striped skunks and many other types of grassland wildlife. Most Illinois farmers have switched to no-till or reduced tillage farming techniques. These practices benefit wildlife by leaving crop stubble, stalks, leaves and waste grains in the field rather than plowing them under and exposing bare soil.

Few striped skunks are harvested for their fur. A year-round hunting season allows people who have problems with skunks (killing poultry or causing other damage) to remove them without a special permit. (Note: Shooting skunks in urban areas is usually illegal because of laws that prohibit the discharge of firearms within city limits.) Trapping is allowed during parts of November through January, but may not be practical in urban areas because of state laws. People who live in urban areas should call the Department of Natural Resources for the names of specially licensed nuisance animal control operators who can be hired to solve problems with skunks.

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