Skunks are known for being stinky and stripped. You can often easily identify them as mostly black with one white stripe going down their backs. We portray them as cute and playful in cartoons and while they are mild-tempered, they can be potentially dangerous.
Skunks often make their dens in pre-existing burrows or under buildings and inside barns, with a smooth, clear entrance. You may find skunk droppings, a lingering odor, staggered tracks, signs of scavenging, and fur nearby. If you have chickens or bees, their eggs or honey might disappear as well.
Almost everyone has smelled a skunk before and knows the very distinct smell. Although they are not looking to spray anyone, it happens if they feel threatened. Knowing what to look for when searching for a skunk’s den can help you avoid the pungent spray.
How to identify a skunk
There are two kinds of skunks primarily known across the United States. There is the striped skunk (mephitis mephitis) and the spotted skunk (spilogale gracilis). Some say they are part of the weasel family and other people think they are in their own family, mephitidae.
Comparing striped and spotted skunks
The University of California states skunks have a triangular-shaped head accompanied by a long body and short but muscled legs. They also have 5 toes, each equipped with non-retractable claws.
The striped skunk is double the size of the spotted skunk. A striped skunk is about a foot long, while a spotted skunk is about half the size. The striped skunk is mostly black with a long, white stripe making a line down its body while the spotted skunk is black with a multitude of white markings on their backs.
Skunks are mostly nocturnal and are usually not aggressive at all unless provoked. The Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife tells us skunks only defend when they feel threatened. Often, when a skunk has the choice to spray or run, they will run.
Young Skunks And Skunk senses
Young skunks (called kits) are quite playful and act a lot like kittens when they are around humans. A lot of skunks are friendly in cartoon portrayals. However, they can still be a big problem for you, especially if they spray.
Skunks have great smell and hearing abilities, but they lack in the sight department. Since they rely heavily on other senses, they are still very precise when they spray. Although, they are timid and would rather run than stick around to see what happens.
Will a skunk spray?
A skunk cannot just spray an unlimited amount of times. Skunks take quite a bit of time to replenish what they have sprayed.
Since spraying is their primary source of protection, they are not willing to give it up unless necessary. Many people compare them to bees. Since bees only have one stinger, it is important to be sure of a threat before using their defense.
The skunks also will give a lot of warnings before they spray. The two most common are stomping and putting their tails in the air. However, they may also hiss, scurry, or yip to scare you away from them before they see you as a threat.
You may be afraid of a skunk scurrying toward you. If this is the case, read more about their behavior here: Will A Skunk Chase You? Here’s What To Know.
Their spray is a sulfuric acid compound. It is usually yellow and oily with a powerful scent, which is usually hard to get out.
It is acidic enough to make people nauseous and can cause an intensive burning effect on exposed skin. If you get sprayed in the eye, it can cause temporary blindness.
A skunk can be precise in its spray up to about 6-10 feet but can spray an unaimed mist about 20 feet away from them. They use their hearing and smell to gauge where their target is and then dial in on it to help them be more accurate.
What Do Skunks Eat?
Skunks eat a lot and enjoy a large variety of foods. They are omnivores and alter what they eat to what is readily available to them in every season.
Skunks eat insects, plants, fruits, and even small rodents. According to the University of Wisconsin, they are helpful to farmers, gardeners, and landowners alike.
While they have a strong smell accompanying them, they are not on a lot of animals’ radar as prey. They do not draw in any more critter attention and eat potential pests in your garden. They are also great at spreading seeds in their scat (also known as feces).
While they might be helpful in some ways, their spray can make it hard just to exist in the same area. It has a strong odor, often gives people headaches, and is just not pleasant to have around. How can you tell if you have a skunk den near you?
Characteristics of a skunk den
Skunks are actually kind of peculiar about where they lay their little heads at night. They do not go out of their way to make their homes, either. Skunks are scavengers and if possible, they will use a den another animal has already created in seasons past.
They are not picky about what animal made it either. It could be a rat, a squirrel, a coyote, or a fox. As long as there is minimal digging and effort on the skunk’s part to make the den, they are happy campers.
If they cannot find a den, they will make one underneath something. This can be things like brush piles, holes in logs or under logs, under cement slabs, your house foundation, under your back porch…. anything they can fit themselves under with minimal digging.
Where Do Skunks Prefer To build Dens?
Skunks also really enjoy forests, fields, farms, ravines, suburbs, and city life. They are not picky creatures as long as they can find a suitable place to live with their kits and their families.
Fields, pastures, croplands, and brush piles are also good contenders in places you are likely to find a skunk. However, when a skunk finds a den, it’s usually a permanent placement, they are looking to buy not to rent. A retirement home, if you will.
While they have pretty permanent homes, they are not strangers to rotating homes as well. However, once skunks find a den, someone will more than likely always be staying in it.
And before you ask, no, skunks probably won’t leave on their own after building a den.
Skunk Denning Behavior In The Winter
When I say they might rotate dens, I’m talking about during the winter. While they do not hibernate, skunks communally den to keep warm during the winter.
In the winter, they will plug the entrance of their den to help keep them warm and insulate themselves They might do this using leaves, sticks, or whatever else they can find to keep their living quarters nice and warm. This is because they drop their body temp and stay close to home when it gets cold out.
While they share dens in the winter, if there is a new kit, they will not share the natal den with another family of skunks. However, you will not find a natal den anywhere other than a previously established den.
These dens have to be underground. You will not find them in a woodpile or under a slab.
Dens are about a quarter of a mile away from each other for easy access to get back and forth. Skunks do not venture very far away from home as it is, less than 2 miles under any circumstance. This is important when they pick a den because they want it to be close to all amenities.
Skunks Build Dens Away From Humans
While skunks are less picky about where they if they do not have to build it, they are picky about which buildings they live under. They do not want a ton of human traffic, but they want enough to keep their living space a simple place to get everything they need.
Skunks enjoy living on the edges of residential areas, so they have their amenities but also have their privacy and safety.
A skunk would rather live on a farmstead, followed by wetlands, then woodlands, and finally, croplands if they are not living on the edge of a residential area.
While it is uncommon, skunks might also live up high like in attics and lofts because they are amazing climbers. This is usually a last-ditch effort when they are trying to find a good place to make a den, but it is not unheard of.
What should I look for if I suspect skunks?
This is an excellent question. As stated before, skunks are nocturnal and hardly ever make an appearance during the day if they can help it. They go to collect food in the night and make it to the safety of their dens before dawn even appears.
It’s kind of like making sure you were home before the streetlights when you were a kid, except these skunks have to get back before the sky light comes on.
Keep An Eye out for skunk tracks
If you are on the lookout for signs of a skunk, you may see their tracks all around. They look a lot like a cat’s paw print except they have one extra toe and their claws do not retract like a cat, so they show 5 claws as well.
These tracks are also staggered, whereas if you were to see a cat’s tracks, they would be over the top of each other. “Staggered steps from a skunk” is a good way of using alliteration to remember it!
Skunk Droppings will point you to them
Also, if you are looking for signs of a skunk, you can look for their droppings. Again, they look “cat-like”, but they usually have undigested food in them like feathers, fur, and insect skeletons. Their scat is about 2-4 inches long and has blunt ends.
Skunk Scent Lingers Near Their Dens
Another sign is a lingering of a skunk smell. A skunk does not have to spray to get its musk in the general area.
If they frequent it often enough, the area will have a faint smell of sulfuric acid smell dubbed “nature’s tear gas”. If you think you smell a skunk, chances are you are smelling a skunk.
While their scent might send you running for the hills, you can use a skunks sense of smell against them. Here is a list of 15 Scents That Skunks Hate (And How To Use Them).
Skunk Dens Leave Cone Shaped Holes
When skunks go out at night, they will scavenge and dig for their food. Most times, they dig up mounds of dirt, which are easily recognized as the work of a skunk. They are typically 2-3 inches deep, cone-shaped, and sort of resemble an anthill.
Skunks Roll Up Fresh Sod For Their Dens
If you have sod, it will not deter them. Skunks will roll up fresh sod to get to the bugs underneath the fresh layer of damp grass. They will roll it up to search, but usually will not roll it back out for you and can tear it up while looking for more bugs.
Skunks Will Make a mess for food
They will turn over trash cans looking for food and will scrounge around in things like compost bins if you have them. They are not afraid to make a mess and will often be mistaken for raccoons if only the aftermath is found.
you May Notice Missing Eggs Or Honey If You Have Skunks Around
If you have chickens, you might notice eggs missing and your chicken coop might be a bit of a mess. A clear sign it was a skunk in your chicken coop versus a raccoon or a coyote is how they eat the egg.
Skunks bite off one end and then crush the sides. If this is what the remainder of your chicken eggs look like, you have a skunk on your hands.
If you have bees, a skunk is likely to go to your hive for the delectable honey on the inside. If you are not sure it was a skunk, look for scratch marks. Since a skunk has non-retractable claws, it will leave scratches all over the hive and surrounding area.
Skunks Make Dogs Bark
One early sign of a skunk in your immediate area is your dogs are barking at night. They will typically bark if they can detect the smell or see their eyes glowing. While I know it is easy to assume your dogs are barking at nothing, it is better to be safe and check for signs of skunks.
A motion sensor light like the ASPECTEK Ultrasonic Pest Repeller may be just what you need to keep these pests at bay. It uses light, an optional alarm, and an ultrasonic sound to deter critters from your yard. Do your research and if you have a pet, the ultrasonic noise may effect them as well.
The effectiveness of ultrasonic noises is questionable at repelling pests to say the least, however it’s worth a shot as a motion sensor.
For more options to repel skunks, check out this piece, 10 Best Skunk Repellents (And How To Use Them). You may already have something in your home capable of solving your pest problem!
The Entrance Of A Skunk Den Is Smooth And Free Of Debris
Now, when it comes to finding their den, they are not the easiest thing to spot in clear daylight even. The den usually only has one entrance, so while there would be a lot of traffic at the entrance, it only happens at night.
The entrance is usually smooth and free of grass or leaves, except in the winter when they cover it for warmth. It is usually about 3 to 4 inches wide and it goes into a depression that goes underneath something (for example; it goes down into their burrow of a den).
Near the entrance of a skunk den, you might find small holes in a multitude surrounding the singular entry and exit. These are from skunks looking for bugs close to their homes.
You might also find clumps or pieces of black and white hair, and with these two colors, you can be almost positive you have a skunk.
Going about dealing with skunks
When dealing with skunks, it is important to know where you are and what you can do. Each state has different rules about getting skunks out of their dens and even some cities can vary.
Research about the local recommendations, and look into if your city will remove them for free.
Why would the city remove them for free, you ask? A lot of times, skunks dislike interacting with humans at all and will completely avoid it if necessary. If they are interacting often, they might have rabies which is harmful to humans.
For more information on daytime skunk sightings, take a look at Seeing A Skunk During The Day: Here’s What It Means. It is always better to be safe than sorry!
Just to be safe, many times the city will come out and deal with it to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
On the off chance you cannot get out of the way before you get sprayed, there is a great recipe you can follow, including baking soda, dish soap, and peroxide to help lift the smell. You can bathe yourself and your pets in it (carefully) and soak any exposed fabrics in it as well.
When I was young, my dog got sprayed by a skunk and my father used this concoction to help get the smell out of her fur. We were far from home, and she ended up getting sprayed on an evening walk right in the suburbs of a city.
After a bath in this mixture, we had no complaints, even riding with her in the back of the car on the ride home.
If skunks are a common problem for you and you would rather have something on hand to use, try Skunk Off – Ready to use Skunk Odor Remover!
In closing, while skunks are smelly and hard to have around, they are great for our ecosystem. By being able to spot the signs of a den near us, we can find the best plan of action to relocate or rid ourselves of them.
Always remember, if you see a skunk, just walk away. It does not want to hurt you, and you do not want to get sprayed.
Bixler, A., & Gittleman, J. L. (2000). Variation in home range and use of habitat in the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). Journal of Zoology, 251(4), 525–533.
Houseknecht, C. R., & Tester, J. R. (1978). Denning Habits of Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis). American Midland Naturalist, 100(2), 424.
Lartviere, S., & Messier, F. (2010). Aposematic Behaviour in the Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis. Ethology, 102(8), 986–992.
LariviÈre, S., & Messier, F. (1998). Denning ecology of the striped skunk in the Canadian prairies: implications for waterfowl nest predation. Journal of Applied Ecology, 35(2), 207–213.
Lariviere, S., Walton, L. R., & Messier, F. (1999). Selection by Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) of Farmsteads and Buildings as Denning Sites. The American Midland Naturalist, 142(1), 96–101.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
Download My Free E-Book!
Take a look at my guide on Pest Proofing Your Home In Under a Day! I get into the nitty-gritty on the most common types of pests you’ll see on your property including BOTH insects and wildlife, along with the specific signs to look for regarding any pest you have questions about.