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Skunks are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae). There are four species of skunk in North America: striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), hooded skunks (M. macroura), spotted skunks (Spilogale putorius), and scarce hognosed skunks (Conepatus mesoleucus).
The striped and spotted skunks are common in Ventura County's rural and urban areas; the striped skunk is larger and more common than the spotted skunk. Although their markings vary, these bushy- tailed creatures are always back and white and absolutely unmistakable.
Striped skunks measure 20 to 30 inches long (including the wide, bushy tail) and weigh 6 to 10 pounds (about the size of a house cat) and have two wide, white stripes on their backs that meet on the head.
Spotted skunks are about half that size with white spots instead of stripes. Skunks have small heads and eyes, pointed snouts, and short legs that make them seem to waddle. Their strong forefeet and long nails make them excellent diggers. They tend to be slow-moving animals, never in much of a hurry, and are generally poor climbers.
A litter of from one to seven young, averaging five, is born from late April to early June. An individual's territory may span 30 to 40 acres. In the wild, skunks tend to den in shallow burrows or hollow logs. They are hardly ever found more than two miles from a water source. In urban territories, skunks den beneath buildings, decks, dumps, and woodpiles. They are capable of burrowing a den a foot or so underground, with well-hidden entrances. They like warm, dry, dark, and defensible areas; most house basements and crawl spaces qualify.
Skunks are generally nocturnal and begin foraging at sunset. Skunks are omnivorous and help keep the rodent population in check. They often travel five to ten miles within their territory at night looking for field mice and other small rodents as well as lizards, frogs, birds, eggs, garbage, acorns, and fallen fruit.
They also dig for insects, especially beetles, larvae, and earthworms. Their diet includes black widow spiders and scorpions. Being carrion eaters, they help keep roadways and neighborhoods clean. An estimated 70 percent of a skunk's diet consists of insects considered harmful to humans.
The skunk's chief enemies are automobiles and great horned owls, both of which kill skunks in large numbers. Skunks rarely attack unless cornered or defending their young. If approached by an intruder and unable to flee, a skunk will usually fluff its fur, shake its tail, stamp the ground with its front feet, growl, stand on its hind legs, turn its head and spit to scare the potential attacker. If those techniques do not work, it will lift up its tail and spray.
The chemical skunks spray at their enemies is a sulfur compound called N- bulymercaptan. It is ejected in a fanlike pattern from two small openings near the animal's rectum. The glands that produce the chemical hold enough for five or six full-powered sprays, but skunks seldom spray without warning or cause. Although they have sharp teeth, they rarely use them in defense, because their spray is most accurate and effective at a range of up to 15 feet.
Having adapted well to neighborhoods, it's not uncommon to find skunks and domestic cats dining peacefully together. There have been cases of skunks entering homes through pet doors, dining with the family cat and finding a quiet closet or empty bed to spend the night. As long as the skunk does not feel threatened, it won't spray.
With their slow, waddling gait and bushy tail, these gentle mammals are delightful to see from a distance, and play an important role in keeping nature in balance -- the natural way.
Skunks are very adaptable and often find food and nesting sites around human habitations. The best protection against them is to modify your habitat to limit resources available to them.