Were it not for a few bad manners and one particularly offensive odor, skunks would be one of the animal world’s best friends to gardeners.
This member of the weasel family does a lot of good by eating such yard and garden pests as beetle grubs, grasshoppers, cutworms, mice, rats, rabbits and an occasional mole. One study found that only about 5 percent of what a skunk eats is of any economic value to people.
But eating the poor gardener’s plants is only one way pests like skunks can be a pain in the neck. For one thing, skunks can stink up the household by emitting a nasty odor from its anal glands, which is a smell that’s both defensive (for the skunk) and offensive (to us).
That’s only one pesky habit. Skunks also can tear up a yard pretty well by their relentless digging for grubs and other bugs. Sometimes they’re carriers of rabies. They often can be found digging in garbage cans at night in search of chicken bones or whatever other snack that might turn up. And they have a bad habit of burrowing under porches and sheds to make their homes. It all adds up to enough mischief that most homeowners overlook the good traits and seek to get rid of the malodorous mammals.
KNOWING THE ENEMY
Skunks are furry, bushy-tailed, four-legged black mammals about the size of a cat. The type most common around here is the striped skunk, so named because of the white stripes that run down its back.
Adults skunks breed near the end of winter and give birth in May to a single litter of 4 to 6 babies. (Skunk lings?) The young stick around with Mom that first year. In the wild, skunks normally live three years or less.
It’s rare you’ll see a skunk because they’re nocturnal creatures. They’ll also shut down for a month or so in the dead of winter in an underground den.
If you ever happen to come across a skunk, thought, be aware they are confident defenders. They usually won’t spew their offensive liquid unless threatened or cornered, but if you see Mr. Skunk stamping his forefeet rapidly and arching his tail over his back, that would be a good time to quietly and slowly retreat.
If a skunk ever sprays you or your pets and property, two good odor-removers are diluted vinegar and diluted tomato juice. Clothing can be soaked in bleach or ammonia.
Skunks normally live in clearings near woods, but in populated areas, they’ll seek out brush piles or dig dens under buildings. Their tracks can be recognized by the five-clawed toes on both the front and hind legs.
DEALING WITH SKUNKS
Probably your best bet in dealing with skunks is to live-trap them. You can use a ready-built metal Havahart trap or build your own.
Cover the trap with a blanket except for the opening and attach a wire or string to the trap door so you’ll be able to open it from a distance later. Then set the trap near an active opening to the skunk’s den—if you can fine one—or else place it near where the skunk has been active.
One of the best baits is fish-flavored cat food, but you might also try peanut butter or canned sardines.
After capturing a skunk, pull the blanket down over the opening and release it at least 10 miles away on public land where it won’t cause trouble for others. Call the State Game Commission at toll-free 1-800-228-7554 or at 1-800-228-0791 for information on suitable release areas nearby.
It’s also a good idea to seal off any den opening you find. Do this at night while the skunk is out feeding. (You can tell he’s out by sprinkling flour in front of the opening during the day and then looking for tracks after dark). Wire mesh, sheet metal or concrete are three options for covering the openings.
If you find a skunk in a shed or garage, it’s best to keep a door open and let it leave on its own. Skunks trapped in window wells can be freed by placing a ramp down the well.
One common-sense way to get rid of skunks is to get rid of their food source. That’s probably why they’re hanging around your place in the first place—there’s a steady supply of food. Start by getting rid of their favorite dinner—beetle grubs in the lawn. Grubs can be controlled long-term by applying Milky Spore disease powder or seasonally by applying Merit insecticide in mid-summer. Then don’t let garbage sit out in bags. Keep it sealed in garbage cans with the lids on tightly. Finally, clean up debris such as brush piles or woodpiles that might be making inviting skunk habitats. Since skunks put out such a disgusting odor themselves, there aren’t many smells that can be used to repel them. Two that might work to some degree are mothballs and ammonia-soaked sponges set out in pie pans. Noisemakers and other scare devices haven’t proved very effective either. At least not for long. You might try a dog though. Another possibility if you don’t mind getting ugly is killing skunks by gassing them to death with the same poisonous cartridges that work on groundhogs. You’ll have to seal off all the den openings and then insert a lighted cartridge into one of the openings before sealing off that last opening. The cartridges shouldn’t be used near buildings, though, so that’s a major drawback since most skink dens are under or near buildings. If all else fails, or if you don’t like the idea of getting too close to a skunk, call the pros. There are pest control companies that will gladly trap and remove all of your skunks for you…for a fee, of course.