Jeff Green | Apr 14, 2005
Nature Reflections ,April 14, 2005
Nature Reflections April 14, 2005LAND O' LAKES NewsWeb Home
Contact UsThe Porcupine As I was coming home one day this week, it was easy to see the Porcupine hunched down on a large branch of a tall maple tree - a round, black splotch that stood out against the gray tree bark. Like humans, it was probably enjoying its first taste of spring. This one had probably had its fill of maple buds and bark and was sleeping safe in its high abode, though usually this slow-moving animal prefers a hollow in a tree or in a den under rocks in which to rest.
This animal is the second largest of North American rodents, and like other rodents has front teeth that continue to grow throughout its life. So it must gnaw on hard objects to keep wearing them down - such as my garage! About thirty thousand quills are interspersed among the dark coarse hairs of the back and tail. The hollow quills are actually modified hairs, the tips of which have backward-projecting barbs.
Last fall mating would have occurred when a male wandering in a larger than usual range found a female who was receptive to him. He would have splashed her with urine, and if she was unwilling she would have shaken it off and left, but if willing, she would curl her tail over her back to cover most of the spines, and mating would occur. (I expect most people have heard the joke Q. How do porcupines make love? A. Very carefully!)
The female will bear only one young at a time, about seven months later. At birth that baby will weigh more than that of a newborn Grizzly - between one and two pounds, and be about ten inches long, covered with long grayish-black hair and soft quills. Within hours the quills will have hardened and serve as protection. It is then capable of following its mother, though not able to climb large trees for several weeks. The mother will nurse the young for three to four months, though it will start to eat vegetation in a few weeks. Staying with its mother for the summer, it will learn about den sites and food trees, but by fall it will be fully weaned and completely on its own.
Climbing is done with the aid of strong curved claws, knobby pads on the bottom of their feet, and also by using the stiff bristles on the underside of the tail for support. And though this is very much a part of their lifestyle, they seem slow and awkward, and research has shown healed fractures in some individuals, which would indicate they had fallen out of trees. The diet consists of leaves, twigs, buds and bark of trees, fruit, nuts, flowers and grasses, all of which are low in sodium, so the animals seeks out salt sources such as natural licks, road salt, human perspiration on tools, glues, and the shed antlers or bones of dead animals to obtain it.
Normally the quills and hair of the Porcupine lie flat, but when threatened, the Porcupine draws up its skin so that the quills are facing in all directions. Trying to keep its back to the predator, it will strike back and forth with its formidable tail. No, the Porcupine does not throw its quills, but they readily dislodge when the tail is shaken. If an inexperienced dog or other predator makes the mistake of getting too close, the result will be a mouthful of spines. Once embedded, the barbs on the quills expand from the body heat, and become difficult to remove. A wild animal such as a Wolf, Bobcat or Wolverine that receives such a mouthful will almost certainly die of starvation or infection. The Fisher is one predator adept at flipping over the Porcupine and attacking its soft unprotected underbelly. There is indication that Bobcats and Wolverines sometimes do the same.
While native Americans used them for food and a source of quills for decoration, the Porcupine is now probably of negative importance to the human population. I hope the one I saw does not come by my garage again!
Observations: Shirley Peruniak saw a Song Sparrow back in Sharbot Lake on March 27, and both Pintail and Common Loon on April 6. Shirley also saw a Tree Swallow near Perth on the 6th. Lois Stacey, near Harrowsmith, had a beautiful Ring-necked Pheasant at her feeders on the 6th. Brian Sutton saw two swans near Silver Lake on the 4th. On Armstrong Road I have had a Beaver dining on a small branch on the ice on March 30, a Winter Wren singing on April 4, a Fox Sparrow on April 2, and Golden-crowned Kinglets on the 7th. April 8, a family on Cranberry Lake Rd, Arden, reports a female Indigo Bunting, two Purple Finches and an Eastern Wood-Pewee.