When Lawrence Heaney stepped outside his front door on a recent evening, he found himself just a few feet from a skunk.

The two eyed each other. “He looked at me and shuffled away. He made a couple of abrupt movements. I thought they meant, ‘I see you,’” said Dr. Heaney – no stranger to mammals, as he studies them professionally as a curator for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

“As long as a skunk is looking at you, even if it’s making some kind of jerky movements, you’re not going to be sprayed,” said Dr. Heaney. Should the skunk turn around and raise its tail, though, it is likely ready to take aim and secrete butyl mercaptan, the thick, yellowish, oily liquid with the notorious smell.

The musk is harmless but penetrating, and even spray in the eyes does not do permanent damage. “Spray in the eyes can sting, but it’s always temporary,” Dr. Heaney said. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website, the smell has been detected at distances of up to 20 miles away from where it was discharged.

The mostly nocturnal animal is black with a white patch on the back of the neck that tapers into a single white stripe extending to the shoulders, then splitting into two stripes that continue down the top or sides of the back.

Skunks can dig their own dens, but prefer to use those excavated by badgers, woodchucks or other animals, according to the IDNR website. These den sites also include stumps, caves, rock piles, old buildings, junk piles, sheds, wood piles and dry drainage tiles or storm sewers.

A skunk sighting is the cause for many a detour for pedestrians out for an early-morning or evening stroll.

While pedestrians who see a skunk know to steer clear, dogs are not always so sensible.

“The biggest problem is dogs,” said Dr. Heaney. If a dog gets too close, “it’s not going to go too well for the dog.”

Related to weasels and badgers, skunks are part of Evanston’s urban/suburban landscape. In the late fall, the females put on a lot of fat. “They become little butterballs,” said Dr. Heaney, both to get through the winter and because they mate in late February or March. The kits, as baby skunks are called, are born about 65 days later, in May or early June. The average litter size is about four to five. Kits weigh about 35 grams at birth (less than a pet gerbil), but they grow quickly and reach adult size by 10 months of age, he said. 

A group of skunks is called a surfeit.

Skunks sleep through most of the winter but do not exactly hibernate. They wake up from time to time – for instance, on a warm day in January – and look around for food, he said.

They eat larvae, berries and if it is handy, garbage. In the grass they munch larval insects. They eat bees and other things that lay their eggs inside short tunnels, and they are resistant to stings of yellow jackets, bees and wasps, said Dr. Heaney. “They will eat yellow-jacket larvae and grubs – any available protein – but are more omnivore than carnivore.

“We have a cherry tree, and I’m pretty sure they eat the cherries that fall on the ground,” said Dr. Heaney.

Exposed or thinly wrapped garbage will attract skunks, rats, coyotes and racoons. “In some places, the landlords don’t provide enough receptacles, so bags of garbage are left on the ground beside an overflowing cart. It’s not the fault of the tenants,” Dr. Heaney said.

Unlike raccoons, which in Illinois are presumed rabid, skunks are rarely found to have rabies, though distemper can be a problem. But a skunk that is too friendly or unafraid or does not try to defend itself is cause for concern, Dr. Heaney said.

All in all, Dr. Heaney said, “I don’t have a problem having skunks around. … Years ago, a friend had a skunk – Daisy, of course. She liked to play and was an interesting animal – very smart and very, very strong. She learned that she could roll on her back and use her hind feet to open the refrigerator door and [help herself to] the food inside.”

The smell, if diluted enough, does not really bother him. “It’s a flowery, musty smell. I associate that with an open window in the house – a sign of summer.”

Skunks will likely continue to be part of Evanston’s wildlife scene.

To facilitate this coexistence, Dr. Heaney suggests, “Leave them alone and they’re going to leave you alone. And don’t leave trash out.”

IDNR encourages people living in urban areas who have a problem with skunks to call their Springfield office, for the names of specially licensed nuisance animal control operators who can be hired to solve problems with skunks.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...