I don’t know why, but they feel like one of those mythical animals you never get to see. Like most of my first encounters, I remember my first porcupine sighting. I was driving along Route 11 in northern New York when I noticed an unusual shape in a tree off the side of the road. I pulled over and backed up along the shoulder, and sure enough — porcupine! These were pre-cellphone and pre-digital camera days, so I didn’t get pictures, but I remember being excited to see, in person, an animal I had only ever read about.
The North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is the second largest rodent in North America after beavers. It’s known for its 30,000 barbed quills, which, despite popular belief, it cannot throw. It is one of eighteen species of New World porcupines and is the only one that can withstand northern temperatures.
c. 1400, porke despyne, from Old French porc-espin (early 13c., Modern French porc-épic), literally “spiny pig,” from Latin porcus “hog” (from PIE root *porko- “young pig”) + spina “thorn, spine”. — Etymology Online
Despite the fact that porcupines are common in the region, it would be another 20 years before I’d see one again. Not long after we moved to this house, I looked out my bedroom window and again noticed an unusual shape in a tree. I grabbed the binoculars and sure enough — porcupine! And while it was high in the tree, the tree was low, so I was able to get close and take some very cute photos.
I followed the tracks of that first porcupine through the snow and discovered that it lived in the cave behind our house. Since then we’ve seen porcupines on our property and in the surrounding acres — maybe a half dozen individuals.
Porcupines are solitary creatures, so I was surprised to catch these two on the trail cam last year. Listen to them! They come on screen at about the :20 mark.
So what the heck is going on?
It turns out that female porcupines are receptive to mating for only eight to twelve hours a year. So for three or four days leading up to her receptive period, the male has to guard her from other males. He does this by following her around and serenading her, hoping to convince her that he’s the one she’s been waiting for.
And persistent he was! Here they are crossing driveway …he’s still talking …
And the front yard …still talking …
As you might imagine, mating is a delicate affair for porcupines, but not as prickly as you might expect.
When she is ready to mate, she indulges in a kind of dance with the chosen male, where they both rise on their hind feet to embrace, all the while whining and grunting. Sometimes they place their paws on each other’s shoulders and rub their noses together; then they may cuff each other affectionately on the head and finally push one another to the ground. — Hinterland Who’s Who
Then the female flattens her quills and moves her tail so the male can mount her, sometimes using a no-hands approach. If all goes well, after about 30 weeks — around May in our region — she gives birth to a single young. The baby is born with eyes open, emerged teeth, and soft quills that harden within hours. By fall it will be independent and left to survive the winter on its own.
During the winter, porcupines eat the inner bark of trees and evergreen needles, preferring those from white pines and hemlocks, both of which are plentiful here. Last year this porcupine spent the better part of November and December in our front yard. We’d see it cross the yard each morning and evening, both on the cams and in person. It had a handful of trees it would climb and feed on. Eventually it moved on, presumably to forage in a new area.
In the spring porcupines prefer sugar maple buds, a rich source of protein. But when the leaves mature, they move on to the inner bark of basswood, aspen, and beech saplings. Along with this, they will eat more herbaceous foods such as grass, dandelions, violets, and raspberry canes and leaves. In the fall they also turn to apples if there are orchards nearby.
These foods affect the porcupine’s sodium balance and cause the animal to crave salt. In remote areas they find salt in pond lilies, water plants, mud flats, and even animal carcasses and bones. But near humans, their craving results in their infamous behaviour of chewing wooden structures, tool handles, and many other surprising items. But road salt is the most dangerous to porcupines, increasing their risk of being hit by a car when they consume road salt over-spray and runoff. This craving also puts people at risk —
[The porcupines] had nibbled through a brake hose… a problem I discovered on the way to work the next morning, when my foot went to the floor without slowing my pickup at all. I was grateful for a long driveway and a hand brake. The truck—our only vehicle at the time—was out of commission for three days while a replacement hose was located. —Tovar Cerulli
So porcupines get a bad rap for all that chewing, especially when it comes to human structures, automobiles, and forest management. In the past, people over-hunted porcupines to reduce their damage. But, in areas where porcupines are over-abundant and do the most damage, this is often because of the decline in one of their main predators — fishers.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, fishers are the most effective and specialized porcupine predators in North America. They attack by biting the porcupine’s head or by flipping it over to expose its unprotected belly. Wildlife experts have found that re-introducing fishers to areas where porcupines are a nuisance is an effective way to control porcupine populations.
Since we and our neighbours have seen fishers on our cams, I figure one was probably responsible for these porcupine remains we found by the trail last October.
Sad for that porcupine but good for the fisher. And meanwhile, the photo in the header was taken in the same area as these bones just this week, so the balance of nature continues.
Overall, North American porcupines are doing well. They are considered a Species of Least Concern by the IUCN and in most places they are thriving. However, in Mexico they are considered to be in danger of extinction due to low densities, poaching, and habitat loss. Because of this, parts of their range now fall within protected areas.
So let’s take care of porcupines Watch out for them on roadways and be patient in the spring and fall when their diet causes them to chew your cottage, decking, or sweaty wooden hand tools and canoe paddles. You can put out a mineral lick which may draw their attention away from your home and belongings. But at the same time, still put small items out of their reach and, where you can, cover lower sections of wooden structures with wire or metal. And finally, if your car is kept outdoors make sure to check your brake hoses and other critical components that might be covered in tempting road salt.
Done right, we can safely share our space with our prickly little friends.