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Porcupines

Beaver-Porcupine Encounter

beaver with quills2  376A Porcupine’s 30,000 quills effectively defend it against two and four-legged enemies, and occasionally against its own species. Rarely, however, do we see evidence of this mode of defense outside of our family dogs, most of whom are challenged when it comes to learning from the experience. From the size of the quills in this Beaver, one can assume it came in contact with either the Porcupine’s upper back or neck, where the quills are longest (up to 4”). How and where this encounter took place is a mystery. Porcupines can and do swim – their quills are filled with a spongy material which may enhance their buoyancy. So it’s within the realm of possibility that these two rodents met in the water, but that seems unlikely. While some quill injuries result in death, a surprising number of victims recover. One researcher observed that the quills he saw in a raccoon’s muzzle were worn down to a stubble within a week. Due to tiny barbs on the end of the quill that contacts another animal, it can work itself into an animal’s body, but those in this Beaver will hopefully come to rest against its jawbones. As long as the Beaver can eat, its chances of survival are good. It is unlikely to get an infection from the quills, as they’re coated with fatty acids that inhibit the growth of bacteria (in case the Porcupine stabs itself?)

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Porcupettes Being Born

5-20-14 porcupine IMG_3143This newborn porcupine is about a foot long from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, weighs roughly a pound and has quills about one-inch long. It will nurse from its mother for the next two months, but within two weeks will be feeding on vegetation as well. Because its offspring is precocial (capable of traveling and feeding on its own soon after birth), the porcupine’s mother provides care for her one offspring only for a week or two before leaving it to fend for itself.

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Opportunistic White-tailed Deer

white-tailed deer and nip twigs 008One of the most obvious signs associated with porcupines is the presence of “nip twigs” on the ground – severed tips of Eastern Hemlock branches dropped from above after porcupines have eaten the buds off of them. It usually doesn’t take long for White-tailed Deer in the area to detect this easily-accessible source of food. Tender tips that would be out of reach without the assistance of porcupines are quickly consumed by White-tailed Deer. Look for deer tracks and scat beneath trees in which porcupines are feeding. (Note wide porcupine path on left leading to den tree. All other trails were made by deer.)

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Porcupine Tracks

1-23-14 porcupine tracks 014Probably the most distinctive characteristic about Porcupine tracks, other than their being somewhat pigeon-toed, is the fact that they have so few details, even in perfect tracking snow. The relative sharpness and details of the imprint of an animal’s foot often have to do with either the texture of the snow or of the animal’s foot. For example, in winter Red Fox feet are very furry and consequently distinct pad and nail marks are often not visible. Porcupine feet are well adapted for gripping tree trunks and limbs, but, like the Red Fox’s, leave few details in the snow — not because they are furry, but because of the nature of the foot pads. The digital pads typically don’t register, and the metacarpal pads (directly behind the toe, or digital, pads) are fused to form one large pad with a pebbly surface which is advantageous for climbing, but leaves a blurred imprint. With the right snow conditions, their long nails can leave marks, but this is the exception, rather than the rule.

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Apple Scat

10-4-13 woolly bear scat 028At this time of year it’s not unusual to find the scat of various mammals consisting mostly of apple. Red Foxes, White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, Porcupines and Black Bears, in particular, are all avid consumers of this appetizing fruit. Birds, including Purple Finches, Cedar Waxwings and Northern Mockingbirds, also include apples in their diets . While many insects drink the juice of apples, it’s not that often you see an insect like this Woolly Bear caterpillar (the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth) consuming a sizable chunk of a McIntosh apple and leaving behind tell-tale scat. (Discovery by Sadie Richards)

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Porcupines Giving Birth

4-18-13 porcupine IMG_9203It’s not easy being a female porcupine. You mate in the fall and are either pregnant (7 months) or lactating (4 months) for the next 11 months before you have one month’s break and begin this cycle all over again. This time of year porcupines are giving birth to one young that is covered in fur and quills and weighs about a pound. The young porcupette is born headfirst in a sac, in order to protect the mother from quill damage. Its quills are soft at birth, but harden within an hour. (Thanks to Kay and Peter Shumway for photo op.)


Porcupines Tapping Out

porcupine tap IMG_3494At least one porcupine got a jump on humans this sugaring season. A porcupine eats outer tree bark in order to access the phloem (layer of inner bark cells that transport nutrients) and cambium (produces phloem and xylem cells) layers of a tree, its primary winter diet. In eating these layers, the porcupine unintentionally cuts into the xylem, or sapwood, where water and dissolved minerals (sap) are transported between the roots and crown of the tree. Unintentionally, porcupines tap the trees whose phloem and cambium they eat. In this case, the weather had warmed up enough to cause pressure in the tree, which in turn caused the sugar maple’s sap to flow just as a hungry porcupine happened along. Soon thereafter, the temperature dropped, causing the sap to freeze, forming icicles. While they looked good enough to sample, one whiff of them told me that sap was not their sole ingredient! (They were located beneath the porcupine’s den in a hollow tree, from which urine flows freely.)


Porcupine Housekeeping

1-31-13 porcupine in ledge den IMG_2389A recent exploration of some rocky ledges, a favorite winter denning site of porcupines, revealed a virtual maze of trails leading to roughly a dozen crevices where porcupines sought shelter. A look inside these crevices confirmed that porcupines leave something to be desired when it comes to keeping house. Unlike many other animals that keep their dens pristine (e.g. beavers only defecate in water, never in their lodge), porcupines don’t feel the necessity to roust themselves when nature calls. As a result, the floor of their den consists of years of accumulated scat (and urine). In some cases, the pile of scat in these ledge dens was so high that it made you wonder how a porcupine could even fit into the crevice, and indeed, in some cases, porcupines do have to dig their way out of their den. When it became aware of my presence, the pictured porcupine assumed its characteristic defense posture, exposing its quill-filled back and upper tail surface to the intruder. It needn’t have worried, as the opening was barely wide enough to get the camera into, much less the photographer!


Porcupine Trail

porcupine trail IMG_0059It’s fairly obvious when there are active porcupines in the woods, as they leave all kinds of signs. The females, who often spend the day in a hollow tree or rock den, come out at night to eat (males often spend several days up in a tree), and leave very pronounced 6” – 9” trails back and forth to their feeding trees. Along this trail, in addition to an occasional quill, there are often pellets of scat as well as urine, which both your eyes and your nose can detect. Porcupines discard the tips of hemlock branches when they’re through eating the tender buds and leaves up in the canopy, and consequently the ground under a feeding tree is often littered with “nip twigs.”


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Fisher Scat

Contrary to their name, fishers seldom eat fish.  While they prey on a wide range of animals and even plants, their preference is for small mammals (80% of their diet), snowshoe hares and porcupines.  Because fishers are well equipped to kill porcupines, and because there is little competition for them, porcupines are an important prey of fishers –up to 35% of fisher diet samples contain the remains of porcupines, as this photograph of fisher scat attests to.  There is no mistaking the bumpy porcupine foot pads (and quills)!


Porcupine Foot Pads

Given the amount of time porcupines spend in trees, it’s not surprising to see that their feet are well adapted for climbing.  Long, curved nails that grip the bark, as well as “pebbly” foot pads designed to prevent slipping allow this prickly rodent to climb just about anywhere it wants to.  (Hind foot pictured.)


Porcupines and Hollow Tree Dens

Porcupines leave plenty of signs where they have eaten the inner bark, or cambium layer, of a tree. Bark is missing on the trunk of the tree, leaving fresh, yellow wood exposed, which often bears incisor marks.  An observation I have made over the years is that porcupines often de-bark around or near their hollow tree dens.  Typically, if a tree den is used year after year, they gnaw off bark each year, sometimes eating the old, scarred portion which, due to previous chewing, lacks cambium cells. This has led me to wonder whether fresh de-barking in the vicinity of their tree den entrance might have more, or as much, to do with a  porcupine’s staking out a claim on that tree than with its sustenance.  I have never come across any research that even mentions this phenomenon, and would welcome feedback from anyone who has.


Porcupine Sign

Typically, male porcupines spend days at a time up in eastern hemlocks, eating the tender buds and leaves of branches, while females tend to spend the day in a den, and head for nearby food at night.  In the photograph, a porcupine den tree is on the left, with scat from the den having fallen on the snow below. The trail you see was made by the porcupine, as she went from her den tree to a nearby feeding tree.  Usually a den is chosen within a short distance of food, as was this one.  If you look closely at the uppermost quarter of the photograph, you will see a sign that indicates recent porcupine activity – nipped hemlock branches in the snow, that have been discarded by a porcupine, who’s feeding in the branches up above them.  It’s much safer to remain on a large limb and pull the desired tip of a branch in to you than it is to attempt to climb out on a thin branch.  Once the porcupine nips the tip of the branch off and eats the tender buds and leaves, it drops the branch to the ground below.


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