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)!
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.)
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.
Two inches of snow is enough for even the casual observer to be able to find signs of wildlife in the forest. This hollow tree occasionally serves as a den for a female porcupine in which she rests during the day before heading out at night to feed on nearby hemlock leaves and buds. Porcupines make no effort to leave their den when they urinate or defecate, so eventually it builds up on the floor of the den and spills out onto the ground. You can see porcupine scat sprinkled over the snow (having fallen from the den entrance above) and if you look closely you’ll see several icicles near the lighter patch of wood on the tree trunk. One whiff confirmed that they were none other than frozen porcupine urine.
Two nights ago good friends called to report that an animal had been screaming in their woods for about five hours, and asked if I knew what creature sounded like a human baby crying. Because I am naturally curious, I had to see for myself what was making this commotion, so I headed over to the woods by their house. It was immediately apparent from the cries that whatever was making them was in the forest canopy. Looking up, you could see the leaves moving quite dramatically, and then suddenly, WHUMP! A large porcupine fell out of the sky and onto the ground a mere 10 feet from where we stood. It’s hard to say who was more surprised, the porcupine or the humans who narrowly escaped having a porcupine fall on their heads. Upon close examination, it appeared that the porcupine must have tangled with one of its brethren, for several quills were sticking out of its face, with the pointed ends in the porcupine’s skin. Apparently no bones were broken, as it eventually ambled off and climbed a nearby tree. Perhaps a territorial dispute? One can only hope that somehow the porcupine miraculously manages to extract these newly acquired quills.