Nature Notes: Porcupine
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By Ed Robinson
An old French name for this creature is “porc d’espine” or “quill pig,” although you’re not likely to find it on the menu at a Michelin three-star restaurant. The porcupine is not actually a pig but a rodent, the second largest in North America after the beaver. Unless you are a fisher in need of food I suggest you give the porcupine a wide berth and keep your dog on a leash.
If you spend enough time in local forests, you’ll encounter a porcupine in a tree or waddling along the ground. Let’s just say they aren’t built for speed. But they are built for climbing. Some of the world’s two dozen species spend their entire lives aloft. That slow lumbering gate often results in the porcupine roadkill seen on Harpswell’s roads.
Porcupines have a thick coat of fur but their most distinctive feature is the thicket of quills from head to tail – as many as 30,000. At birth, a baby’s quills are soft, but they harden within hours. With hundreds of overlapping, backward facing barbs, these quills are needle sharp and very hard to remove. A face full of quills, and the infections that can result, have caused many predators to regret their assault on a porcupine.
The quills are a form of hair, about four inches long, attached to the skin and covered with keratin. They range in color from tan to black. Solid at the base and the tip, quills are hollow along their shaft, allowing porcupines to swim with ease. Quills may release when the porcupine shakes its body, or upon contact with an object or another creature. New quills grow in their place. Despite old myths, the porcupine does not have the ability to hurl quills at an attacker.
So who would be crazy enough to attack a porcupine, other than foolish dogs? There are reports of many predators with quills in them – cougars, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, wolverines and raptors. A fisher is adept at killing a porcupine, grabbing the porcupine by the nose and, when it dies, flipping it over to expose the unprotected stomach.
The North American porcupine ranges all across Canada, the Western US to Mexico, and the northeastern states. It’s preferred habitat is forest, with thick hemlocks a favorite hangout. Porcupines eat leaves, twigs, fruits, nuts, clover, skunk cabbage and other green plants. In winter, the porcupine will eat bark for sustenance, often doing considerable damage to conifers. Most feeding is done at night.
Mature porcupines can reach 30 pounds in weight and up to 36 inches in length, including the tail. Their feet have a soft textured sole for feel, with long claws for climbing. They can grip a tree using only their hind feet, leaving their front feet free for bringing food to their mouth. In captivity porcupines have lived to 25 years but in the wild average lifespan is probably 10 to 12 years.
Mating takes place in the fall. The males can be quite vocal when seeking a mate and the males will fight for dominance. After mating the male may defend the female from other suitors before trudging off in search of another conquest. A single baby is born about seven months after breeding and stays with its mother for roughly six months.
Porcupines are generally solitary creatures, finding den space in small caves, decayed logs or hollow trees. Winter dens may be shared but the porcupine does not hibernate. Attracted to salt for nutrition, porcupines have been known to gnaw on canoe paddles, plywood cabins and truck tires. Despite their sleepy appearance, porcupines are quite vocal, making sounds including moans, grunts, cough, shrieks and teeth clacking, especially when threatened.
If you live near porcupine habitat, or you enjoy walking in the forest with your dog, please take steps to protect your pet from a face (or mouth) full of quills. Slow-moving porcupines seem to bring out the beast in some dogs, and dogs don’t always gain from painful experience. One vet reported treating a dog 15 times (slow learner!). Please don’t try to remove quills yourself as it may do more harm than good, and you may get a bite for your efforts.