Chihuahuan Desert Wildlife: Skunks

By Rick LoBello, Board Member

In 2020 I received a phone call from an old friend here in El Paso who wanted my help in keeping a skunk out of his garage. When I talked to him about his options I discovered that the problem was pretty easy to solve. As it turns out there were small openings from outside the garage that allowed the skunk to crawl in. I told him to plug up the holes and solve the problem that way. No matter what kind of wild animal may be getting into your house, the best way to keep them outside is pretty simple, cover up all the openings.

Depending on where you live, you may be experiencing skunks in your neighborhood. Did you know that we have four different kinds of skunks in the Chihuahuan Desert? The striped skunk is the most common and then after that its anyone’s guess.

The powerful scent gland secretions of a skunk are most often sprayed at potential enemies and only as a last resort. Years ago when I was working at a nature center in Kansas City I took care of two baby skunks. They were just a few weeks old and while they were young I took them to my apartment on weekends so that I could care for them. They still had their sent glands and they soon imprinted on me and started following me around. Never once did any of them spray their scent inside or outside no doubt because they didn’t sense any danger. Before we started showing them to school groups we had the scent gland removed, but I will always be amazed at how even though they had the chance to spray inside my apartment they never once came close.

Every now and then I can smell a skunk near my house. Fortunately skunks have not been able to make it into my backyard. I fear that if one ever does make it in one of my dogs is going to get sprayed and then run inside the house through the doggie door. You can bet I am always checking for any openings large enough for a skunk to find its way in.

Needless to say I have been sprayed from just inches away when I was a graduate student trapping small mammals for a zoonotic disease survey at Davis Mountains State Park. If you ever get sprayed I recommend vinegar over tomato juice as the best remedy, but don’t try to wash the odor out of your clothes, just throw them away.

One of the more interesting skunks in our area is the spotted skunk seen in the museum diorama picture below at the American Museum of Natural History. What is really special about the spotted skunk compared to the other three species is its method of defense. When threatened the spotted skunk will often look at its enemy straight on and then do a hand stand while swinging it’s rump to direct the spray. How about that!

This is a spotted skunk warning two ring-tailed cats to stay back or suffer the consequences.

Hog-nosed skunks look like striped skunks, but when taking a closer look they have a long naked nose pad and long claws. They prefer canyons and stream beds and rocky terrain. Some people call them badger skunks because of their ability to dig into rough and rocky soils as they look for rodents. When they find rodents they will devour them readily, but will spend most their time digging for insects and insect larvae. When given the chance like many skunks they will also eat fruits and some plant material.

The fourth species is the hooded skunk. They look very much like striped skunks and overlap in range with the other three species with the exception of far West Texas. They have been recorded in only a small number of counties in the central and eastern half of the Trans Pecos mainly in the Big Bend country. Perhaps the number of hooded skunk records has something to do with how difficult it is to distinguish a hooded skunk from a striped skunk. The hooded skunk is more secretive than the other skunk species, but the best way you can tell one from a striped skunk is by looking for the longer and softer hairs in the upper neck and head area. Does anyone dare get that close? As for me I have had plenty of memorable experiences with skunks so I think I will pass.

This is a hognosed skunk.

Top – Pat Gaines
Middle – Doug Letterman
Bottom – National Park Service
Cover – Brian Garrett

%d bloggers like this: