On this warm day I find myself walking along a narrow piece of bedrock that travels east to west. Above me is a nearly vertical 60 foot schist ledge. The path on which I walk, perhaps 3 feet wide, is somewhat precarious. The drop off from this rock pathway is about another 30 feet. If I were to fall I would land on one of the jagged boulders below; large fragments of schist broken off by the great power of expanding ice in the bedrock platelets that likely created the very path on which I traverse.
I’ve hiked this path many times. It is an essential shortcut that allows me to get to another area of these great woods without having to climb down the hill and up again, or for that matter, up the hill and down again. The ledge path is a favorite haunt of porcupine, perhaps one of most misunderstood mammals. Porcupines live amongst these rocky crags. By evidence of the great amount of scat found along the rocky path I can be confident that they still utilize this short cut much as I do. Nearby there is a historical den in a deep ledge crevice; a nesting site where porcupines have wintered together for generations. These critters are truly ledgendary.
Many people see porcupines as a general nuisance. A creature that deposits sharp barbed quills into the nose, ears, and mouths of man’s best friend, the curious hound. And while it may be true that one of nature’s best defense mechanisms has injured many a dog it is hardly fair to malign one of most magnificent rodents for defending itself. Like all of nature’s creatures it seems more that reasonable that it has a right to self defense.
Other than winter denning porcupines are primarily solitary. They are a true herbivore eating a host of green succulents in the spring and summer and graduating to leaves, conifer needles, and bark as the year progresses. They have specialized claws that makes tree climbing both easy and efficient and although the appear to be slow and clumsy it is amazing to witness how adept they are a maneuvering around a tree, especially far out on to narrow, dangerous limbs.
As mentioned earlier their most well known characteristic are their sharp quills. Their quills are actually a hollow adaptive form of hair. The barbs on the quills are oriented down the quill and act as anchors in a predators face or body. The quills can only travel in one direction and that is into the assailant. This is a potentially fatal. Deeply embedded quills can lead to serious infections. They can also end up in an organ of a predator.
Years ago I had a happy-go-lucky black and tan/bloodhound cross who enjoyed escaping from my direct supervision and wandering the deep woods alone. These escapades would frequently end with a trip to his veterinarian which was not affordable, especially in my younger years. Hickory was a large, 90 pound, hound that seemed to have no common sense when it came to getting injured. On one occasion he came home with spaghetti shredded ears; likely the result from combat with a bobcat. On another occasion he came home with this entire side torn out right into his intestines. The claw marks on his side indicated that he had gotten into a scrape with a black bear. But his most serious wild episode was with a porky. After another one of his Houdini like escapes he came home at night looking like a pin cushion. Not only was his entire head, mouth, and ears covered with quills but he had hundreds of quills in both front paws, particularly on the underside of his leathery pads. Like many hounds, especially bloodhounds, Hickory used to like batting things with his paws, a habit not well suited to playing with a porcupine. I have no idea how he walked home like this but given his uncharacteristic whimpering an immediate trip to the Veterinarian was in order.
This vet had become intimately familiar with Hickory Dickory Doc. His many visits had made them almost friends. At first this Vet used to lecture me about keeping Hickory on leash or secured in a pen or the house but that ended when this hound actually escaped from his facility while recuperating by somehow miraculously undoing the latch on the large metal crate he was recovering in after one of his many surgeries and then slipping out a door. The Vet called me in a panic when Hickory went missing. Hickory showed up on my doorstep a day later having traveled 20 odd miles so that he could recover at home. His wounds were uncovered and needed redressing but other than that he was none the worse for the wear. However. the Vet never lectured me again about keeping Hickory contained.
On this occasion the Veterinarian took one look at the pin cushion-like hound and exhaled a long and not very silent sigh. He mumbled that the work he was about to begin would take all night and to call him in the morning. Sure enough he was just finishing up at 8 AM the next morning. Hickory had over a thousand quills in him and extracting the ones from the pads was, evidently, a horrendous chore. Removing the quills had taken so long he had to use two rounds of anesthesia. This news left my knees shaking. I was most happy that Hickory would recover but extremely fearful of the bill. Much to my amazement the Vet did this hard work absolutely free of charge. He declared that we were now even for him having lost Hickory at his last visit. I thought he might suggest that I find another Veterinarian as he went on to say something. Instead he declared that he had grown rather attached to “that stupid hound”!
Like all critters in the forest Porcupines play a roll in the forest ecosystem. They have only a few successful predators. The fisher is the most successful. Fisher, a large member of the weasel family, are adept at killing porcupines without getting quilled. In the winter when food is scarce fisher will approach porcupines cautiously on the ground. Porcupines spend most of their time in trees during the winter but migrate from forage tree to forage tree. The fisher will dive under the snow and tear out the porcupines underbelly where there are no quills. He then lets the animal die and will enter into the body cavity in search of meat through the same belly opening. Bobcats will also predate porcupines but they most do so very cautiously. Quills have been often witnessed in bobcats, usually meaning they may have had a meal at their own expense.
Porcupines are the second largest North American rodent, only second to the Beaver. An adult male porcupine can weigh up to 20 pounds but rare specimens have been much larger in the 30 pound range. Their sloth like movements on the ground may lead one to believe that they are dim witted. The fact is that they simply aren’t afraid of too much. Most porcupines have long lives, up to 12 years, which is a much longer life than many forest animals.
I have come across baby porcupines (called porcupettes) with their mother. They are remarkably cute and close to their moms. The mother porcupines who breed in the late fall to a suitable male give birth to one porcupette about 7 months later. The young porky will stay with its mom for about a year. During late summer and early autumn you can often see them foraging together in a deciduous tree. Other than mating and winter denning this is likely the only time you will see porcupines in the company of other porcupines.
Realizing I’ve been standing on this precarious ledge for quite some time while thinking about the ledgendary porcupine I decide it will be wise to move on.
Moving on is always a good thing. Another adventure, I’m sure, lies ahead.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in September of 2015.