DOOR TO NATURE: A Close Encounter of the Porcupine

My friend John Maring and I had just finished checking most of the nest boxes on our trail when we walked out to the last one in the field west of my house. As we approached the garden shed, we heard some strange rumbling and scratching sounds and wondered if an animal were caught inside.

Roy and I used to grow peas in our garden, and he stored four large wood-framed pea vine fences against the back of the garden shed. There sat a porcupine, on top of the fences, chewing the wooden wall of the shed. The animal had been there for quite a while, judging by how much he had chewed.

Luckily, John had his cell phone and snapped a few photos of that fascinating creature. This was the best, closest view we ever had of a porcupine. When we moved closer, it turned to look at us, then turned back to the wall and made a funny chattering sound, as if to say, “Don’t bother me while I’m eating!”

Eventually, it climbed down and trundled into the nearby woods. These walking pincushions are relatively fearless, knowing they have a formidable barrier to ward off predators. 

The sight of the porcupine standing against the wall revealed how its canopy of quills protects its body. They can raise those quills to climb and eat in tight spaces.

Food supply is hardly ever a problem for this slow-moving, pigeon-toed rodent, the second-largest in the U.S. after the beaver. Porcupines prize lily and other shoreline plant roots, as well as bark, twigs and tree leaves. Hemlock trees rank as favorites, followed by aspen, basswood, balsam fir, spruce, arborvitae, pine, maple, birch, beech and willow.

One porcupine frequently remains in a tree until it consumes all the twigs and leaves or needles it can reach. The unusual shapes of some aspens and hemlocks may be traced directly to a hungry porky from several years ago.

Another factor important to the survival of these ponderous animals is their near-total immunity to predators. It is said that fishers, mountain lions, wolves and coyotes are about the only animals that can successfully kill and consume parts of a porcupine. Automobiles and forest fires are by far their worst enemies.

Fishers can approach a porcupine, grab it by the nose, flip it upside down and make a kill by striking the belly, which does not have any quills. I remember Carl Scholz, a local educator and environmentalist, finding a porcupine skin along Glidden Drive and figuring it had been attacked by a fisher.

Considering an adult porcupine’s 30,000 1- to 4-inch quills invariably brings up questions, like “How do they mate and give birth?” The age-old answer is “very carefully!”

They go through an extended on-again, off-again courtship for a couple months before mating. The female pulls her quills tightly against her body and draws her tail flat against her back. The underside of her tail, to the relief of the male, is soft and lacks quills.

The female’s ovary only releases a single egg per year, and it can be fertilized in the amazingly short timeframe of several hours or less. In nearly all cases, only one young is born following a gestation period of about seven months.

Baby porcupines’ quills are soft at birth but harden within a few hours. The well-developed baby, weighing as much as 20 ounces and measuring as long as 10 inches, has the distinction of being one of the largest babies, in proportion to its mother’s size, of any animal. By two days old, they are already capable of climbing trees.

Porcupines, contrary to popular belief, cannot throw their quills. They are attached to the skin, most loosely on the tail, much to the consternation of dog owners (and dogs!) These needle-like spines of armor, smooth and sharp, are actually modified hollow hairs containing hundreds of tiny backward-facing barbs at their tips.

When the quills enter the flesh of an animal, the moisture causes the barbs to curl inward toward the flesh. Then, helped by the muscular contraction, the quills work further and further into the body until sometimes penetrating vital organs and causing death.

Despite the porcupine’s lack of beauty, intelligence and speed, its undisputed success in surviving could serve as a reminder to people: slow down, simplify, get to know your own backyard and enjoy life!