Meditations on porcupines

By Kristen Lindquist | Oct 11, 2011
Photo by: Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Recently my five-year-old niece, Fiona, came to our house overnight for her first sleepover. After a viewing of the movie “Rio” — “because you like birds, Auntie ”— we finally went to sleep way past her bedtime. She slept with me, while poor Uncle Paul was relegated to the guest bed, so it was with some dismay that I was awakened the next morning at 6:15 by a flock of blue jays yelling raucously right outside the bedroom window. I lay there hoping they’d move on soon before they woke up Fiona.

Instead, they got louder. Knowing that the jays get worked up like this when there’s a cat in the yard, I decided to get up and chase off the cat so they’d shut up. I padded across the dew-laden back lawn to see what all the fuss was about. And there, about 20 feet off the ground, in a slender maple right next to our shed, clung a young porcupine. Obviously, I wasn’t going to be chasing that away. By this time, the jays were joined by several cardinals and a crow in their verbal harangue of this arboreal intruder. So I gave up and went back inside.

When Fiona inevitably woke up a few minutes later by all that racket, she wanted to get up and see why the birds were so noisy. Even out the window we could see the porcupine well. It was settled into a fork in the trunk, side-to, with its paws embracing the trunk, long claws visible. It shifted a few inches but didn’t seem to be going anywhere fast.

“It’s kind of like a sloth,” Fiona declared.

Preoccupied by the porcupine, the birds kept up their harassment, but the porcupine seemed utterly unfazed.

A five-year-old can only watch an unmoving rodent in a tree for so long, no matter the initial novelty of the experience. Back inside, I reminded Fiona how once when she was complaining about something, I compared her to an angry porcupine. We listened to my tape of animal sounds so she could hear for herself. While “our” porcupine was silent, perhaps petrified by all those screaming birds, my cassette offered up the voice of an “angry porcupine.” Even Fiona agreed that an upset porcupine sounds uncannily like a kvetching child; its long, groaning whine rises in pitch as the creature seems to get more and more frustrated, just like a tired little girl who’s not getting her way.

The porcupine hung out in the tree for several hours, shifting only slightly in all that time. Being mostly nocturnal, I think it was trying to settle in for its day’s sleep. And the jays did eventually quiet down and leave it, and us, in peace. When we returned from an outing later that afternoon, however, it was gone.

 

 

As many dog owners can attest, the porcupine is far from uncommon around here. I’ve come across them huddled in trees or climbing young maples in spring looking for buds to eat, found their redolent dens and scat piles among rocks on the local mountains, watched them waddle across roads and lawns. I’m always struck by how cute their fuzzy faces are. More than once in a tracking workshop we’ve come across porcupine sign beneath a hemlock — lots of chewed-off branch tips scattered messily in the snow along with the pungent smell of porcupine urine — only to look up and see the sleeping animal curled right there in the tree. And think about how many road-killed porcupines we see. That sloth-like slowness is a particular detriment when it comes to humans in cars.

Its main protection, its quills, don’t help against cars, either, but do protect from most other enemies. Most wild animals will only rarely attack a porcupine, and even approach a carcass warily, flipping it over to eat from the unprotected belly area. The fisher, however, is somewhat notorious for its ability to prey on the porcupine. Relying on its own tree-climbing expertise, a fisher will repeatedly circle a porcupine that seeks refuge in a tree, attacking its unprotected face area until the rodent’s throat is vulnerable. Trappers and trackers report finding intact quills in fisher scat, giving credence to the story that the digestive tract of a fisher is invulnerable to quills. That would also explain a fisher’s ability to completely strip a porcupine carcass. Master tracker Paul Rezendes reports that another enemy of the porcupine, the great horned owl, will sometimes come down on a treed porcupine from above and drop it to the ground to kill it.

Our pet dogs, however, and other animals unfortunate enough to encounter a porcupine up-close, are not impervious to quills. While a porcupine can’t throw its quills, it can release them upon the slightest contact. It can also whip its quill-laden tail like a spiked club with surprising speed. The quills don’t contain poison of any kind; in fact, porcupine biologist Uldis Roze found they contain a fatty acid that acts as an antibiotic. Their very fine barbs enable them to penetrate an animal’s flesh and work their way in deeper with each twitch, ultimately moving through the animal and potentially piercing vital organs.

The porcupine is primarily an herbivore, preferring the bark and greenery of conifers like hemlocks in the winter, and branching out to other plants, leaves, tree buds, and fruits in the summer. Rezendes has observed porcupines in the water eating aquatic plants and once even came across a meadow at dusk filled with porcupines grazing on clover with apparent euphoria. After many years of trying to figure out what was making small round holes at the base of hemlock trees, he’s also concluded that the porcupine will dig for puffball mushrooms much as a pig will go after a truffle. A porcupine will eat cast-off antlers, perhaps for the protein, those rodent incisors can chew up an antler as if it were just another tender poplar trunk.

Given their feeding habits, I still can’t quite understand why the birds were so upset with the porcupine in our tree. My husband wondered if a porcupine would opportunistically go after birds’ eggs, but it seems more likely to me that the birds simply saw it as a strange creature in their territory and wanted it gone for no better reason than that. In any case, I guess I should be grateful to them for the early morning wake-up call, or Fiona and I would have missed seeing our sweet-faced, quilled visitor.

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