Spotted Skunk

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

We are all familiar with the striped skunk. Bambi’s friend Flower and Pepe Le Pew were striped skunks. In southern Oregon we have another, less commonly seen skunk;Spilogale putorius, the spotted skunk, civet, or polecat. Spilogale is the Greek word for spotted polecat: putorius is Latin for stench. Some mammalogists consider our more slender western version, S. gracilis, a separate species. Gracilis means slender.

As North America’s smallest skunk, these nocturnal mammals weigh two pounds or less and are under 20 inches long. The weasel-like spotted skunk differs from other skunks by its extremely silky fur and an arrangement of irregular elongated white patches the length of its body. Spotty’s tail is tipped in white.

Active, agile, spotted skunks have no trouble climbing bushes, trees, and the rafters and beams of barns, chicken coops and other farm buildings. When threatened, spotted skunks stamp the ground repeatedly with their front feet, then do a handstand. The handstand is a deceptively powerful defense. With its hind legs high in the air, the skunk spreads the long white hairs of its tail to form a conspicuous target between the attacker and its body. When the attacker tries to bite the obvious white target, it gets a very rude surprise. The skunk unloads a powerful spray of a most obnoxious fluid from its anal scent glands. The attacker, with its mouth, nose and eyes saturated, quickly loses interest. The malodorous secretion can accurately hit a target 12 feet away and cause severe burning or temporary blindness if it gets into the eyes.

Spotted skunks have little fear of humans and often occupy any suitable space in or under buildings, porches, mobile homes, or abandoned vehicles. Almost any secure darkened cavity lined with dry vegetation can be used as a den. Several individuals may share a den with more than one litter present at a time.

They eat insects, rodents, mice, frogs, crayfish, small birds, and eggs. They will raid garbage cans, eat table scraps and commercial cat food if given an opportunity. They will enter hen houses for eggs. They will uproot crops in gardens while hunting insects. They will uproot hops (the beer flavoring) because they like to eat the roots. Some evidence suggests that spotted skunks resist rattlesnake venom and will eat the snakes. Few animals eat spotted skunks except great horned owls and a host of tiny parasites.

Some people kill spotted skunks because they think they are a nuisance or they trap them for their low-priced pelts. Consider keeping them: they are excellent natural mouse and rat traps. If your dog is so dumb that it just can’t leave the skunk and its white target alone, don’t kill it. The skunk, that is. Drive pesky skunks away by sealing up entrances to potential dens. If they have already taken up residence they can be discouraged by training flood lights in the den area. If that doesn’t work, try one teaspoonful of neutroleum alpha in a gallon of water as an effective deodorizing bath. Save the tomato juice for vodka when it’s over.

— Dr. Frank Lang

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