Average adult striped skunks weigh 6-8 pounds, though body weight might be significantly heavier in late fall, as the skunks attain layers of fat to sustain themselves through winter. Spotted skunks are much smaller, usually weighing 2-3 pounds. Males of both types are slightly heavier than females.
All striped skunks have a white stripe on the head between the nose and the forehead. A white crest, or cap, is typical on the top of the head, and a continuing white stripe usually divides the shoulder area into two stripes that continue along the sides of the animal into the tail. The amount of white coloration varies with the individual skunk, with some having broad stripes, narrow stripes, short stripes, or even none at all.
Spotted skunks have a white patch on the forehead area and a broken pattern of white striping that appears as blotches or spots of white in the otherwise black fur. The amount of white also varies with individuals. Some spotted skunks have mostly black tails, while other can be mostly white.
The scent glands in skunks are well developed. Musk, or essence, can be sprayed repeatedly as a defense. The yellowish compound is powerful in all skunks and contains sulfuric acid, which can cause temporary blindness in other animals and man.
Striped and spotted skunks have five toes on each foot. The front feet have relatively long claws to assist in digging for grubs and other food. Skunks have 34 teeth, including four pointed, sharp canines.
Skunk fur is rather long — and longer on tails than on bodies. Underfur is white under the white guard hairs and grayish under the black-colored guard hairs.
Striped skunks often breed during February, and the males do a great deal of traveling at this time to locate females. Many times, females live in an underground den through the winter with only one male, who will protect the communal den from invasion by another male.
Gestation periods are usually 63 days, and all bred females seek solitary dens to raise their young by themselves. Litter sizes of striped skunks are usually six to eight, except for the first litter, which usually numbers four.
The eastern species of spotted skunk usually breeds in April. Gestation is about 60 days before three to five young are born. The western species breeds in September or October, and gestation is about 140 days due to a delayed implantation process.
The new litter of striped and spotted skunks begin following their mothers at 6 weeks of age. Travel is often single-file, and the young are quick to learn to find grubs and insects.
The family unit breaks up as the young reach 3 months of age. Dispersal is not significant, and the juvenile females may continue to share their mother's den. Males are evicted, however, by the dominant male, and the juvenile male skunks are forced to find other suitable den locations.
Striped skunks are mostly nocturnal, doing most of their hunting and traveling during the night. Territory sizes are somewhat small, and overlapping or sharing territories is normal, as the species does not defend its territory against others of the same species. Home ranges are considered to be about 4 square miles, but most skunks do not travel more than a mile or so in one night's activity.
Communal dens are common during the time of year that young are not being raised, and six to 20 skunks might share a den with one male at a time.
Striped skunks suffer from poor vision at a distance of more than 2 or 3 feet. A keen sense of smell enables them to easily locate foods, which vary with the season. Not a particularly swift animal, skunks don't need good distance vision to locate prey, which have little or no mobility. The ability to see a predator at a distance is not necessary either, as the threat of spraying its musk will usually deter all but ignorant predators, which soon receive a lesson.
Skunks usually give ample warning before they spray their musk. Spraying is a defense mechanism and used only when the animal feels that it is necessary to protect its own life. Warnings usually include a lifting of the tail, a turning of the back towards the danger, and sometimes a pounding of the front feet in a drummer-like fashion.
Striped skunk weight: up to 8 pounds
Spotted skunk weight: 3 pounds
Striped skunks have poor vision at more than 2-3 feet
Spotted skunks can do handstands
Spotted skunks are more agile than striped skunks. Their territory sizes are similar to striped skunks'. Spotted skunks can climb very well, and they descend trees headfirst.
When threatened, spotted skunks commonly do handstands, balancing on their front feet while they lift their bodies into the air. This balancing act usually lasts for about 5 seconds at a time. The species can spray an offender from this position.
Spotted skunks are almost strictly nocturnal, usually retiring to a den before daylight and coming out only after dark in the evening.
Skunks are not true hibernators, but both species may spend weeks at a time in dens during cold temperatures and deep snow conditions. Striped skunks usually utilize underground dens that have been made by badgers, groundhogs, or foxes. At times, they will tolerate other species in their dens, even curling up and sleeping with a raccoon.
Spotted skunks prefer dens under or in old buildings. Oftentimes, a den will on the second floor of an old barn. Dens in haylofts are common, and spotted skunks easily climb to the elevated areas.
Slow and poorly sighted furbearers, striped skunks are opportunistic feeders. Grubs and insects are commonly located and dug out of the ground, along with juvenile mice, rabbits, and ground-nesting birds or eggs. Fruits and grains are eaten when available, and carrion is commonly eaten during the winter months when many foods are not available.
Spotted skunks are more efficient than striped skunks as predators. These smaller skunks kill and eat significantly more mice and rats. Spotted skunks also frequent the edges of streams and ponds, and they wade in shallow water in pursuit of crayfish, a preferred food.
Striped skunks are found in all the North American states except Alaska and Hawaii. Populations of spotted skunks are sporadic and inconsistent in most areas.
Although skunks are not well liked by people, they do provide valuable services by controlling significant numbers of injurious insects in the larval stages. The diet of spotted skunks is almost entirely beneficial to man. Both striped and spotted skunks can raid chicken houses. The worst offender is usually the spotted skunk because it can climb easily to gain access.
Spotted skunks do dig up lawns in pursuit of grubs, and this is an annoyance to those who spend time and money to groom lawns.
The concern of rabies in striped skunks is very real. More striped skunks than all other species combined are tested positive for rabies every year, and this disease is always a threat to livestock, pets, and man.
Striped skunks can destroy a significant number of waterfowl nests. However, recent studies indicate that they may be beneficial to waterfowl populations because skunks are the only significant predator of a far more serious waterfowl: the snapping turtle. Striped skunks relish snapping turtle eggs, which are commonly found, unearthed, and eaten.
Six years of age is considered old for striped and spotted skunks.