What Homeowners Need To Know About Skunks

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It's not all that hard to coexist with skunks. Here's how to keep them from moving in, and how to move them along if they already have.

When you’re out walking and catch a whiff of that distinct musky skunk smell, it just might be a clue that love is in the air. For two months, starting around Valentine’s Day, skunks can be especially aromatic because it’s their mating season.

Nearsighted and docile, skunks can be found (or smelled) in residential neighborhoods. We don’t often see them, but if you’re interested, look at twilight when they’re typically out foraging.

“Skunks, like all living things, need food, water and shelter in order to survive,” says Thomas Ward III, training specialist and wildlife biologist for Critter Control. “If one or all of these things are present, your yard may be appealing to skunks.”

Where Do Skunks Live?

Our most common skunk, the striped skunk, lives nearly everywhere in the U.S. and up through central Canada. In the wild, they den under logs, in brush piles and in abandoned woodchuck holes. In your yard, they might hole up in a secluded area like a wood or rock pile, or under a deck, shed or porch with open access.

“As humans urbanize the landscape and suburbs pop up, native wildlife has less and less habitat,” says Nick Kilby, wildlife field services coordinator with Think Wild, Central Oregon. “With less habitat, they begin to make their homes in the only places available: yards and under decks.”

Skunks sometimes get stuck while wandering by. “Due to their extreme nearsightedness, an adaption to hunting for insects like earthworms and grubs, skunks will sometimes fall into uncovered window wells, wander into garages or even fall into a pool,” says John Griffin, senior director of urban wildlife programs at The Humane Society of the United States.

What Do Skunks Eat?

A skunk’s diet consists mainly of insects like grubs, crickets and beetles. They’ll also eat small rodents like mice and voles, and even attack wasp nests for their larvae. And if you leave dog food, garbage and other easy-to-access items outside, skunks will go for that, too.

Are Skunks Dangerous?

Skunks don’t typically pose a threat to humans. They can be unpredictable, like all wild mammals, and on rare occasions carry rabies. Their spray can cause eye irritation and, if ingested, illness. But generally skunks only spray as a last resort, when cornered by a dog or if their young are threatened.

“Thankfully skunks are really great communicators, if you are paying attention,” says Griffin. “They give ample warnings that should be heeded, like stamping their front feet, raising their tail, hissing, arching their back, making short forward charges and twisting their hind end around in your direction. Spotted skunks will even contort into a handstand, rump in the air with eyes still fixed on the threat.”

If you encounter a threatened skunk, move away slowly and quietly.

What Damage Can Skunks Cause?

Because skunks sometimes den under structures, occasionally they can damage them. They will also dig up gardens and make small, shallow, cone-shaped holes in lawns in their quest for food.

“When it rains heavily or the lawn is overwatered, grubs come to the surface where skunks smell them and start digging,” says Griffin. “Once the lawn dries out, and if the yard isn’t over-watered, the grubbing should cease.”

Are Skunks Misunderstood?

Yes, skunks have an undeservedly bad reputation among the general public.

“Skunk’s ability to spray can be frightening to a homeowner, but it is important to know that skunks do not want to waste their spray on you,” says Ward. “Skunks utilize spray as a defense mechanism against predators, and once it is depleted, their glands take several days or more to regenerate it.”

These mild-mannered neighbors are also beneficial to us and ecosystems. They hunt and scavenge.

“They provide free pest control by eating things many people don’t like, including insects, mice and even baby rats,” says Griffin.

How To Prevent Skunks From Coming In Your Yard

“Skunks are opportunists at heart,” says Griffin. “They’re mainly attracted to low-hanging fruit like garbage and pet food left out at night, as well as convenient denning sites.”

The best way to keep skunks out is to make your yard unappealing. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Remove food sources, bring pet food inside and secure garbage cans;
  • Remove easy-to-reach standing water sources, like décor fountains and pet water bowls;
  • Get rid of potential denning sites such as brush, log and rock piles;
  • Cover window wells and other places they might fall into and get trapped;
  • Secure open spaces under decks, porches, sheds and crawl spaces with wire mesh.

How To Get Rid of Skunks

First, consider if you actually need to get rid of them. Often denning skunks are raising their young, or trying to escape the coldest part of winter. Before long, they’ll move away on their own accord. “Tolerance is encouraged when it comes to skunks denning,” says Griffin.

If leaving the skunk alone is not an option, evicting them requires a little strategy and finesse. If it’s a spotted skunk, be especially judicious because their numbers are declining in many places.

  • Before you get rid of a skunk, check with your state’s wildlife department. In some states, they’re protected as furbearers or non-game animals.
  • First, try mild harassment, like loosely repacking the den hole with leaves or straw. Make sure the skunk isn’t nearby before you start.
  • If they require more persuading, try adding light and noise into the mix. “Playing the radio at night or having flashing lights will also discourage skunks,” says Kilby.
  • Mild animal repellents, such as kitty litter placed near or inside the den, can also be effective. Spray the ground with castor oil. Or boil two quarts of water with two tablespoons cayenne pepper (or two chopped jalapeños) and spray the mixture on the ground. Avoid commercial deterrents based on predator urine, which are often “created under inhumane conditions and are not necessary to repel skunks effectively,” according to The Humane Society.
  • If all that fails, try temporarily installing a one-way excluder door.
  • If a skunk has wandered into your garage, leave the door open at dusk and into the evening. (Skunks are nocturnal.)
  • If one has fallen into your window well, leave a rough board as an escape route. The Humane Society details how to do this without getting sprayed.
  • Once you’re sure the skunk has moved on, close up entry points so it doesn’t come back.

“Like most nuisance wildlife issues, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says Ward.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.