Wild Skunks and Raccoons are Thriving Coast to Coast

Wild skunks and raccoons are among the most pervasive wild animals in the United States. Odds are they live where you live, even in urban and suburban areas. In this article you’ll read their fascinating facts, plus learn how you can help stem the spread of rabies via these critters.

| October/November 2008

Woods-wise and city-smart, skunks and raccoons are among our nation’s most abundant and widely distributed wild mammals. That’s the good news — and the bad news. On the one hand, they’re charismatic creatures with fascinating natural histories and remarkable survival skills. On the other, they can be serious pests and carriers of potentially deadly diseases. To some, they’re just varmints: unwanted and unappreciated, the animal version of weeds.

With a closer look, though, you’ll find that the reasons behind the animals’ uneasy status have at least as much to do with us as them.

Mild-mannered Stinkers

To many humans a skunk is a skunk is a skunk, but the truth is North America can boast (or not) four different kinds: spotted, hog-nosed, hooded and striped. Until recently, all were considered members of the weasel family. But taxonomists now place them in their own family, Mephitidae, a name based on the Latin word for noxious stench.

Weighing in at just 1 or 2 pounds is the runt of the family, the spotted skunk. Sleek, slender and secretive, the spotted skunk is weasellike — it can climb trees like a squirrel — but there’s no mistaking its bushy-tailed black-and-white skunky looks. It’s not so much spotted as covered with blotchy, broken stripes. There’s a stink among biologists over whether there are two species — eastern and western — or whether they’re the same species, and never mind the geographics. In any case, spotted skunks of one kind or another are widely but lightly distributed across the contiguous United States (except the East Coast, Northeast and Great Lakes).

Some experts think that our least common skunk, the hog-nosed, also is two distinct species: again, eastern and western, and again, a case of taxonomical hair-splitting. Regardless, this skunk — a common resident of Mexico and Central America — barely pokes its naked pigletlike snout into the United States, venturing only as far as southern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and the western tip of Oklahoma. The hooded skunk — so called for the long white hairs on its head and neck — also is a Mexican émigré, and shares the extreme southern borders of the hog-nosed’s range.

The aforementioned skunks have comparatively specific habitat preferences and aversions to humans. This is not the case with America’s other skunk: the ubiquitous striped skunk. No matter where you live in the continental United States (with the exception of Alaska and a few bone-dry areas in Southern California, Nevada and Utah), the striped skunk lives there, too. Stocky, short-legged and luxuriantly furred, the striped weighs up to 14 pounds, though eight to 10 is more usual, and is roughly the size of a long-haired house cat. Its markings vary, but typically a single white stripe starts at the neck and breaks into two stripes along the back, often converging at the rear to form a single white tail stripe.

c espeland
10/23/2008 4:26:59 PM

As a former USDA licensed exhibitor I enjoyed sharing a few skunks (fur farm born and descented) to educate the public about this very misunderstood creature. In some states these are legally kept as pets and can be excellent as such for the well educated person. One fact not mentioned in the article is the striped skunk inhabits mainly N. America. Years ago before becoming USDA licensed and having my own skunk our family had friends come to the US from Germany for the first time. After visiting in IL and other states including a trip to Disneyland the one thing that stood out in their minds was getting to smell a skunk!!!(btw they didn't think it was so bad) For this reason I always said I think a skunk should have been our national symbol. Another fact so often never shared is some Native Americans would put the scent gland of a harvested skunk in their medicine pouch worn around their necks for its curative powers. It seems as though the sulfuric compound inhaled helps alleviate certain respiratory ailments and smeared on the skin worksto allevaite the itch/rash of poison ivy, etc. I never saw such a entertaining sight as a spotted skunk which was used in educational programs running around inside a "ball" intended to be used by chinchillas. Oh and last but not least that scent most people would rather never smell was once upon a time used as an ingredient in very expensive perfumes. Chanel No 5 anyone?

Jerry McKissack
10/14/2008 8:32:26 AM

There does seem to be a greater abundance of skunks around this year. We raise chickens and they come looking for the easy egg to steal. So far I've (live) trapped 3 skunks this fall for release several miles away. I use a couple of eggs as bait. I approach the trap with a large tarp and cover it; wrap the tarp around the trap, and then transport my stinky friend to an area farther out into the country. I've only had one spray the tarp - but not me. They do play a role in our natural world and a great many of them end up as road kill.

10/13/2008 9:21:06 PM

I clean parking lots at night in Farmington, NM. I see wildlife around town all the time. One of my accounts nest to a golf course sets out cat food and water for the stray cats. What they don't know is that they are feeding all the resident skunks and raccoons. One night after cleaning the lot I turned off the truck and sat quietly. Pretty soon there were 13 raccoons and 6 skunks all having quite the banquet.

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