Formerly classified as members of the weasel (Mustelidae) family, skunks are in the family Mephitidae. Four species of skunks found in North America are:
- Striped skunk (Mephtis mephitis)
- Spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius)
- Hooded skunk (Mephitis macroura)
- Hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus leucontus)
Striped skunks are not protected by law in most states, and spotted skunks are fully protected in some. Legal status and licensing requirements vary. Check with state wildlife officials before removing any skunks.
Skunks have short, stocky legs and proportionately large feet equipped with well-developed claws that enable them to be very adept at digging. Skunks exhibit a wide variety in coat color: some may be either mostly black or white. Skunks can discharge nauseating musk from the anal glands and are capable of several discharges rather than just a single discharge.
Striped skunks often are characterized by prominent, lateral white stripes that run down the back; the fur is otherwise jet black. Striped skunks are the most abundant of the 4 species. Spotted skunks are more weasel-like and are readily identified by white spots and short, broken white stripes in a dense jet-black coat. Hooded skunks are identified by hair on the neck spread out into a ruff. The back and tail may be all white or nearly all black, with 2 white side stripes. The tail is as long as the head and body combined. Hog-nosed skunks have white backs and tails and black lower sides and belly. The snout is long and hairless for about 1 inch at the top.
Striped skunks are about the size of an ordinary house cat, up to 29 inches long and weighing about 8 pounds. Spotted skunks are up to 21 inches long and weigh about 2.2 pounds. Hooded skunks are about 28 inches long and weigh about 8 pounds. Hog-nosed skunks are up to 26 inches long and weigh about 4 pounds.
Striped skunks are common throughout the US and Canada. Spotted skunks are uncommon in some areas but are found throughout the US and northern Mexico. Hooded skunks and hog-nosed skunks are much less common. Hooded skunks are limited to southwest New Mexico and west Texas. Hog-nosed skunks are found in Colorado, central and south New Mexico, the southern half of Texas, and northern Mexico.
Voice and Sounds
Skunks make noises ranging from screeches, whimpers, and chirps. They stomp their front feet in a thump, thump combination when agitated.
Tracks and Signs
Tracks may be used to identify the animal causing damage. Both the hind and forefeet of skunks have 5 toes. In some cases, the fifth toe may not be obvious. Claw marks usually are visible, but the heels of the forefeet normally are not. Tracks from the hind feet are approximately 2½ inches long.
Droppings of skunks can often be identified by the undigested insect parts they contain. Droppings are ¼- to ½-inch in diameter, and 1 to 2 inches long.
Odor is not always a reliable indicator of the presence or absence of skunks. The musk of skunks can be detected for up to a mile away. Opossums also emit a “skunk-like” odor. Sometimes dogs, cats, or other animals that have been sprayed by skunks make owners mistakenly think skunks are present. Odor from skunks that persists for days and increases in intensity typically means a skunk has died and the musk gland has broken open.
Information on this species is based on the chapter in Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage (Hygnstrom, Larson, Timm, ed. 1994), written by James E. Knight (Montana State University).