Skunks are North and South American mammals in the family Mephitidae. While related to polecats and other members of the weasel family, skunks have as their closest Old World relatives the stink badgers. The animals are known for their ability to spray a liquid with a strong, unpleasant smell. Different species of skunk vary in appearance from black-and-white to brown, cream or ginger colored, but all have warning coloration.
Skunk species vary in size from about 15.6 to 37 in (40 to 94 cm) long and in weight from about 1.1 lb (0.50 kg) (spotted skunks) to 18 lb (8.2 kg) (hog-nosed skunks). They have moderately elongated bodies with relatively short, well-muscled legs and long front claws for digging.
Although the most common fur color is black and white, some skunks are brown or grey and a few are cream-colored. All skunks are striped, even from birth. They may have a single thick stripe across back and tail, two thinner stripes, or a series of white spots and broken stripes (in the case of the spotted skunk). Some also have stripes on their legs.
Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material and changing their diets as the seasons change. They eat insects, larvae, earthworms, grubs, rodents, lizards, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, moles, and eggs. They also commonly eat berries, roots, leaves, grasses, fungi and nuts.
In settled areas, skunks also seek garbage left by humans. Less often, skunks may be found acting as scavengers, eating bird and rodent carcasses left by cats or other animals. Pet owners, particularly those of cats, may experience a skunk finding its way into a garage or basement where pet food is kept. Skunks commonly dig holes in lawns in search of grubs and worms.
Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this behavior to their young. In addition, in California, skunks dig up yellow-jacket (small hornet) nests in summer, after the compacted soil under oak trees dries out and cracks open, which allows the yellow-jackets to build their nests underground.
Skunks mate in early spring and are polygynous, meaning that successful males mate with more than one female. Before giving birth (usually in May), the female excavates a den to house her litter of four to seven kits. They are placental, with a gestation period of about 66 days.
Most predators of the Americas, such as wolves, foxes and badgers, seldom attack skunks, presumably out of fear of being sprayed. The exceptions are reckless predators whose attacks fail once they are sprayed, dogs, and the great horned owl, which is the skunk's only regular predator. In one case, the remains of 57 striped skunks were found in a single owl nest.