Age-Old Wisdom meets Modern Tools
How to Identify and Get Rid of Skunks in the Garden
Skunks are docile animals but may spray if threatened.Photo by Thinkstock
Hey—What’s that smell? If you think you’ve got a skunk hanging around your yard, it’s time to act! Here’s how to identify and deter skunks from your yard and garden.
What Are Skunks?
Skunks are nocturnal animals that are naturally mild-mannered and non-aggressive; they prefer small animals and insects for dinner instead of your garden. They occasionally visit gardens and if they do, it may be because corn or other plants are close to the ground.
The skunk claims homesteading rights from coast to coast. Distributed across the country are 4 species of skunks, including the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and the spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). The common striped skunk lives mostly in sparse forests and fields.
Skunks can be very nice to have around because they dig up and feed on the larvae of cutworms, Japanese beetles, hornworms, and other crop-destroying insect life. However, skunks are not only partial to insects; they will eat leaves, buds, grasses, grains, garbage, any fruit or berries within reach, and even small game. They also may disturb your plants while digging for these grubs. This is what can make them a bit of a nuisance to gardeners.
Although their nocturnal wanderings around our fields and gardens, lawns, and flower beds cause us occasional inconvenience and uneasiness, these are minor faults which can be readily overlooked by the time the Harvest Moon begins to shine. It is then that the skunk’s appetite for the pests that plague our gardens helps make it possible for that Moon to glow over a cornucopia brimming with plenty.
Why and How Do Skunks Spray?
Skunks are famous for their skunk spray—you can smell an angry skunk from over a mile away. Furthermore, a skunk can “shoot” you from 10 to 12 feet, sideways, up, or down, with little apparent effort. Most gardeners worry more about a skunk spraying in the garden, on the gardener, or on a pet than about a skunk chewing up some veggies.
Under a skunk’s tail are two pouches equipped with a pair of ducts which, in peacetime, remain hidden, but which quickly expose themselves when danger threatens. Their foul ammunition is a golden-yellow liquid whose active ingredient is the sulfide mercaptan. Each of the two pouches contains enough ammunition for six rounds. After the supply is exhausted, a week’s time is required to replenish it. This spray has made skunks creatures feared by nearly all animals, including most of mankind.
A skunk’s warfare is purely defensive. When confronted by a menacing man or clamorous dog, skunks will try to sidestep by ambling off. This means that if you find a skunk, simply turn back and you should be fine. If pursued, skunks will turn, face their aggressor, and stamp their forefeet. This is their first warning. At this point, you should really be running!
The second warning comes when their tails, all but the tips, are hoisted. Then, this ultimatum failing to establish peace, the white tip rises, and spreads out, and the skunk, snapping into a U-position with snout and rear toward the target, delivers a charge of spray. At this point, it is simply too late, and your dog probably smells foul.
People usually get sprayed when they are walking through their yards in the dark (if you can’t see a skunk, you can’t run away), or if they disturb a skunk while eating. Those are good reasons to keep skunks out of your yard in the first place—and to always carry a flashlight!
How to Identify Skunks in your Garden
The typical striped skunk has prominent white stripes running down its back and black fur on the rest of its body. It is the size of a house cat and is the most abundant species of skunk in the United States. Spotted skunks are smaller and have white spots as well as broken white strikes amid their black fur. Skunks have short legs and proportionately large feet with well-developed claws that are perfect for digging.
Tracks can be helpful in identifying skunks. Skunks are often mistaken for raccoons because they both have five toes. Sometimes, the fifth toe is hard to see in skunk tracks. Their heels usually are not part of the tracks, and their claw marks are usually somewhat visible. Skunk droppings also often contain undigested insect parts.
Often, the best way to identify skunks is—unfortunately—by their odor. Hopefully you don’t have to deal with the skunk spray in your garden, but you’ll know for sure that you have a skunk as soon as they decide to spray.
These tracks from a striped skunk could help you identify the skunk in your garden. Photo Credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
If your lawn or flower bed has lots of holes in it, you may have a skunk problem. Skunks dig up the turf looking for grubs. They move around at night and dig in grassy areas, making distinct 3- to 4-inch deep holes. Skunk activity increases in the spring and then lessens naturally, so any problems may stop all on their own.
Skunks sometimes feed on corn, but they tend to only eat the lower ears that they can reach. If a corn stalk has been toppled over, the culprit is more likely a raccoon. Planting taller varieties of corn can minimize this damage.
Of course, skunk spray is a common sign of damage. If your dog smells foul, you probably have a skunk!
Control and Prevention
How to Get Rid of Skunks
- Spray a mixture of castor oil and dish-washing detergent diluted in water. Skunks find the smell offensive. Spray the area at night when the skunk is away foraging.
- Probably the best skunk repellent is a light. Skunks are nocturnal and their eyes are very light sensitive. A bright light or a motion sensor flood light will scare skunks away.
- Most animals, including skunks, dislike the smell of citrus fruits. Place orange or lemon peels around the yard as a natural skunk repellent.
- Predator urine (dogs, coyotes) can be used to repel a skunk. These are commercially sold in garden centers. (Note: Use a responsible source for predator urine to make sure that the animals are treated humanely and the brand complies with state and federal regulations.)
- Many readers have found success placing ammonia-soaked rags around the yard, however, these need to be replaced often.
- If the skunks are in a smaller garden patch, put bars of strong–smelling soap or a room deodorizer near your garden. Ironically, skunks hate strong scents.
- If nothing works, there are humane ways for professionals to trap raccoons and skunks and transport them elsewhere. Often, skunk removal by trapping is the only answer, and there just isn’t a lot you can do if it is a skunk. However, be aware that many species of wildlife do not survive when placed in a new territory, and it may not even be legal to trap and relocate wild animals in your area.
Striped skunks. Photo credit: Tom Friedel, BirdPhotos.com
How to Prevent Skunks
- As skunks love to find lots of grubs in your garden, one of the best preventative methods is to treat your lawn so that you get rid of their favorite snacks. Spray your lawn with milky spore disease or beneficial nematodes. This will also help to control Japanese beetle larvae, so it’s a win-win! Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for suggestions.
- Fencing may also be a good idea for small areas, such as a garden patch.
- If you don’t want skunks living under your deck or shed, seal these areas with chicken wire. Leave at least one foot of additional wire on the ground extending from the structure to prevent skunks from digging under to enter.
What to Do If You Get Sprayed By a Skunk
Oh no! We can all smell a skunk from miles away, but it’s truly awful to have that smell on you. If you or your pet gets sprayed by a skunk, try a mixture of 1 quart 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup of baking soda, and 1 to 2 teaspoons of liquid dish soap. Shampoo only the area sprayed by the skunk. Wet the area and work the solution into the skin or fur with your hands (avoid the eyes). Rinse. (This remedy may dry out the skin. If so, use a good-quality crème rinse to replenish moisture once the skunk smell is gone.)
Do you have any special remedies that you use for skunk spray? Let us know below!