Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Porcupines: 2nd Largest Adirondack Rodent

This last winter one of our local residents came in with a photograph of the strangest looking tracks in the snow. There were no distinct foot prints, and no well-defined gait pattern. What it looked like was a beautiful serpentine zig-zagging design; it reminded me of rickrack. And it looked familiar. I grabbed one of my tracking books and quickly thumbed through. Sure enough, there it was: porcupine tracks.

Porcupines are our second largest rodent here in the Adirondacks. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but they are rodents, just like beavers, mice, voles and squirrels. And like all rodents, they gnaw on things (usually some food item) continuously. If they didn’t spend so much time gnawing, they would soon end up with some serious dental problems. This is because the four front teeth (two on top, two below) are continuously growing, which is actually a great adaptation for it allows the animal to always have sharp teeth that are perfectly capable of chewing through some pretty tough materials, like trees. If the animal didn’t constantly wear down its teeth, they would grow and grow, curving around the head, eventually causing death either by starvation or by puncturing the animal’s own skull. I’ve seen this – not a pleasant way to go.

Porcupines are prodigious herbivores, but they have a taste for salt, especially in the winter when their diet is pretty much limited to the inner bark of trees and a few hardwood buds. It is this need for salt, and the porky’s ability to acquire it, that has caused a bit of a rift between our species. Many a tool handle, soaked with sweat, has found its way down the porcupine’s gullet. Automobiles, covered with winter’s road salt, have also fallen victim. I’ve even read of areas that have signs warning winter hikers that their cars might be vandalized by porcupines when left at trailheads overnight. My favorite, though, is the outhouse: many a backwoods privy has been aerated by the gnawings of this contented rodent. This penchant for salt is also the reason we see so many deceased porcupines along the roadsides in late winter and early spring. Quills may be great protection from bobcats and beagles, but they won’t stop a semi.

Usually solitary, porcupines have been known to share communal dens, especially in winter. A porcupine den is easily spotted: the entrance is overflowing with scats (porcupines aren’t the best of housekeepers). In the summer, they tend to go their own ways. Female porkies are more territorial than males, and when the young head out on their own, it’s the females that disperse, while the young males tend to stay closer to home.

Porcupines have few natural predators. Sure, coyotes and bobcats and the like may take a porky or two, but these animals soon learn that it isn’t necessarily worth the trouble (and pain) to do so again. Aside from people, the only predator the porcupine has to worry about is the fisher. This large weasel has made something of a specialty out of hunting porcupines. If it finds one in a tree, it will knock it out. Once on the ground, the fisher darts in, taking quick bites at the porky’s unprotected face. The porcupine attempts to turn its back to the fisher, so it can make a swipe with its formidable tail (much like I imagine a stegosaur might’ve done), but the fisher is too quick and goes for the face again. Eventually the porcupine tires and the fisher makes its move, flipping the animal over and biting the quill-less belly. Soon it is over and the fisher has its meal.

You can probably count on one hand the number of wild porcupines I have encountered. Most of my porcupine experiences have been with the quills alone. I took a course a few years back on the Native American art of using porcupine quills to decorate birch bark. Thanks to movies that feature the plains tribes, most people think quills were used for decorating leather, and indeed they were, but here in the northeast, the indigenous people used them most often to decorate bark containers. Embroidery thread and glass beads hadn’t yet made their way across the ocean and into the woods, so decorative materials had to be found in nature. Porcupines were likely a good part of the native diet, especially in winter, since the animals are fairly easy to hunt. Not wanting to let any part of the animal go unused, the quills were soon adapted for decorative uses. What’s more, they take dyes easily, so they sky was the limit when it came to designs.

Sometimes in the summer I set up a table in our lobby and do a demonstration of this craft. At first most folks don’t believe I am using real quills, for they look a lot like plastic. And besides, aren’t they dangerous to handle? It seems that tall tales abound when it comes to porcupine quills, and this impromptu program has turned out to be a great venue for debunking them.

First and foremost, porcupines do not throw their quills. Quills are essentially modified hairs, and a porcupine can not more throw its quills than you can throw your hair at an attacker. The source of this myth is likely the speed at which a porcupine can swipe its tail at an aggressor. The quills are only loosely attached to the porky’s skin, and when the business end of the quill comes in contact with the tender snout of the attacker, the quill is easily released from the porky and stays behind in the attacker…but not because of barbs.

Nope, the porcupine quill is not barbed. At least, it isn’t technically barbed, not like a fishhook. If you run your finger from the base of a quill to its tip, you will feel a roughness near the tip, almost like sandpaper. If you had a good magnifying lens, you would see that the tip is covered with scales, very similar in appearance to fish scales. These scales overlap, kind of like shingles on a roof, and the lower edge sticks out a bit. This is the “barb”. When a quill is stuck into a soft surface (a piece of flannel, your dog’s nose), the pointed tip slides in as easily as a needle, and the scales anchor it in place. If you try to pull it back out, the flared scales prevent the quill from emerging easily. This is why it is best to sedate the victim before quill removal. If quills are not removed, the victim’s own muscle contractions will continue to pull the quills into the body, and many a story exists of quills that have emigrated through the body, eventually emerging in places far removed from where they entered.

I have also heard some people claim that quills are hollow; don’t you believe it! Inside each quill is a very soft, almost pulp-like, material. If you cut the end off the quill, it will not deflate.

Hope springs eternal every time I’m in the woods that I’ll come across a porcupine, especially in the winter when finding any animal becomes much easier. The key will be to keep looking up, scanning the trees for ones that have been stripped of bark. If I’m lucky, a huddled mass in one of these trees will resolve into a porcupine, contentedly munching away in its lofty perch, happy to let the world pass it by.

Photo by Mary Meagher


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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

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