Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Porcupines: The Original Bark Eaters

Porcupine photographed by Mary HarrschWhat fearless animal has an adorable face, plows snow all winter and has a six-million acre park named after it?

One of 29 species worldwide, the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is the largest New World species, growing to 36 inches long and weighing as much as 35 pounds. That makes it the second-largest North American rodent behind the beaver, but still puny compared to an African crested porcupine which can exceed 60 pounds. It is also the only cold-hardy porcupine, and one of the few that regularly climb trees.

Its name derives from the Latin for “quill pig,” but the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) call it anêntaks, literally, “bark eater.” This is a less-than-endearing term they once applied to the Algonquin living in, well, the Adirondacks. Unlike Mohawks who even back then were expert agronomists with stores of grain and legumes on hand, Algonquins were hunter-gatherers who, by choice or need, would eat the inner bark of pine, maple, elm and other trees. Eventually the Algonquin moved from the area to points north and east, but the place name remained.

Porkies are active all winter, which is a great time to track them. More or less bullet-shaped, they make effective plows, carving channels through the snow. Since they tend to use the same paths, you can go out after a new snowfall to see which troughs have been cleared in the night. In contrast to most species, our porcupines are not strictly nocturnal, but they do tend to be more active at night.

Porcupine feet are pebbly textured and have no fur, and in deep snow you may also see marks where its tail drags side to side as it waddles. In cases where the claws do not register, its footprint can look (I think) unnervingly like that of a small child. Especially if you’re not really awake yet and have stumbled out to the porch for firewood.

Like all porcupines, ours is covered in hair interspersed with up to 30,000 hollow barbed quills. This accounts for their cavalier attitude toward scary stuff like humans, dogs and, unfortunately, cars. Quills are not missiles — they aren’t launched at a predator, but they will come off at the drop of a hat, provided you drop it on a porcupine. The barbed ends are amazingly good at sticking to skin and other things. If not removed, quills work their way through flesh, and can be fatal depending on their trajectory.

Quills were and are used the world over by indigenous peoples for embroidering. Usually white at the base and fading to brown and then black at the tips, quills have an innate beauty but are often dyed and worked into leather or textiles. In North America, native peoples reportedly threw a blanket over a porcupine and harvested quills that stuck to it. I have taken quills in a similar way from road-killed porkies but with a leather glove.
Most of the time quills lie flat. When confronted by a predator a porcupine raises them, and keeps its back end to the threat. A porky can lash its eight to ten-inch long tail side to side, creating a protective radius around itself. Fishers, fierce predators and one of the largest members of the weasel family, are quick enough to outflank a porcupine and kill it by attacking the quill-free head.

Having a cute face only gets you so far in life, and porcupines are despised by many people because bark-eating damages, or even kills, trees. They are attracted to salt, and will chew on tool handles, canoe paddles or other items handled by people, which doesn’t thrill the owners of said objects. One year they found a way under my house and chewed on the sub-floor beneath the kitchen. Who knows, maybe decades ago there was a spill of pickle brine that soaked through.

In addition to eating bark of all kinds, they love herbaceous plants, and are in clover in a field of alfalfa or clover. They have a particular weakness for apples. It is impressive how far out on a branch a porcupine will go to get one, seeming to defy gravity.

Porkies usually den in rock crevices and caves, or sometimes in hollow trees. Breeding is in October and December. In May and June, females may birth up to four young, but generally just one. Not only do they have a low birth rate, it takes more than two years for them to fully mature. In the wild, a porcupine may live 17 or 18 years, with the oldest on record being an ancient 28 years.

A former neighbor of mine, long since passed, had as a young man been given an orphan porcupine. He said it made a great pet, and showed off pictures of a full-size porky in his arms. Kids and adults love to watch porcupines, as they are one of the few wild animals that will stand for such ogling. If there aren’t any where you live, maybe you can plan a trip this summer to that northern New York State Park. You know, the “Porcupine” Mountains.

Mohawk spellings courtesy of Salmon River Mohawk Language Program.

Porcupine photographed by Mary Harrsch.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

9 Responses

  1. AG says:

    I know fishers hunt them… I know cougars out west are good at getting them as well… Not sure about bobcats – but I would assume they can.

  2. Tim says:

    Unlike porcupines, I’m not so sure Algonquins ate bark. Sounds improbable to me. But I have heard the Iroquois made a tea called annedda from bark which the explorer, Jacques Cartier, used to cure scurvy.

  3. Boreas says:

    Downer alert.

    I can attest personally to a fisher’s ability to attack porkies face-first. A few years back while visiting Scarborough(?), Maine, a friend and I encountered a porkie that showed no interest in avoiding us. It was ambling very slowly and erratically. As we approached it became evident its face was missing!. There was nothing but a hole where his snout and eyes had been. He was still breathing and functioning with the front half of his head missing. Unfortunately we had no means of dispatching the poor creature, so we left him for Nature to dispatch. Hopefully, we simply interrupted the fisher and he returned promptly to finish his work. Nature is not always pretty.

  4. Paul Hetzler says:

    Although it may sound far-fetched, it is well documented that native peoples used bark as a food source. As someone with a keen interest in wild foods, I have eaten the inner bark of various trees on many occasions, and will continue to do so when I have the opportunity. White pine and red elm are my favorites.
    Also, I’m pretty sure the Haudenosaune can’t take credit for saving Cartier and his men on their scurvy-ridden expedition in the 1530s–that would be Algonquins again, and the tea was reportedly made from needles of eastern white cedar. Supposedly this is why it was dubbed “arbor vitae,” or tree of life. evergreen needles are an excellent source of vitamin C, and I drink pine needle tea regularly.

  5. Dave Gibson says:

    Great post, Paul.
    I won’t forget Ray Fadden at the Six Nations Museum, and in other settings regaling his audience with the tale of Needles, his adopted porcupine, who eventually grew and set out one day to live in the forest but who was forced to return to his adopted family in order to do his business on the kitchen floor.

  6. Bruce says:

    Great article. When I lived in Oswego County, where I imagined the Native name might mean “land of great snow”, a friend invited me up to see his newly purchased farm up around Amboy Center, one spring. He showed me an old tractor which had obviously been in the same spot outside for at least one, perhaps several winters. The lugs on the rubber tires that were above the snowline were entirely eaten off, leaving that part of the tires almost entirely smooth.

    • JohnL says:

      Our experience with porcupines involves waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of a porky chewing large holes in the camp siding. Seems they love the preservatives used in Texture 111.

  7. Matt says:

    The Green Mountain Club used to have a bounty on porcupines since they were so problematic for the lean-tos and other shelters along the long trail. Apparently for campers too… As the story goes, two campers were settled into a lean-to for the night in the vicinity of Bolton Valley when a particularly bold porcupine decided to climb up on one of the lucky campers chest as he slept, which, needless to say, woke him up. Turning to wake his bunkmate, carefully trying not to bump the creature for fear of the consequences, he implored him as to what he should do considering the circumstances. His bunkmate now awake and aware of his companion’s concern, expressed his relief over the fact that the porky had opted to move. Apparently it had been sitting on his own chest just an hour earlier.

    I’ll never know if that actually happened, but I always enjoyed the story, and think of it whenever I have the opportunity to drift off to sleep in a lean-to.

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