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Shmendrick the Porcupine at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge

Order: Rodentia
Family: Erethizontidae
Genus: Erethizon

North American porcupines are large rodents whose ancestors apparently crossed from Africa to South America on floating trees and logs 30 million years ago, and whose most prominent feature are the approximately 30,000 quills which grow everywhere individually out of the skin musculature, interspersed with bristles, under fur and hair. The quills defend the porcupine from attacks by predators, and the only areas quill free are the face and underside. This may explain why porcupines are so often hit by cars, as their general experience is that larger animals will avoid them.

The word porcupine comes from the old french word porcespin, which roughly translates as thorn pig. While there are 58 species of new and old world porcupines, distibuted over two different families. our north american version may reach two and a half feet in length, with their rotund bodies weighing up to 40 lbs, making them second to the beaver as the largest rodent in North America.

Porcupines prefer coniferous and deciduous forests, with food rich understories, and can live into their late twenties. They do not hibernate, but may share wintering quarters with other porcupines, in caves, covered depressions, hollowed out logs and trees, etc.. Porcupines are mostly nocturnal herbivores, eating mainly greens like herbs, clover and skunk cabbage during the growing months, while spending much of their time in trees in winter, eating tree bark and evergreen needles, while getting minerals by chewing on antler sheds.

Like many mammals, they need sodium, and may be attracted to anything which has been coated with human sweat, from wood handled tools and paddles to outhouse toilet seats, or even anything that has been peed on, as our urine contains a high sodium content. They’re also attracted to the sodium components found in building materials, such as plywood.

Porcupine mating is generally in late Summer, and the mating rituals are as strange as the porcupine’s general appearance. Females are only sexually receptive from eight to twelve hours, once a year, making foreplay and competition among males an urgent process indeed! The male does a rather ornate dance, which includes vocalizations and spraying urine over the head of the female.

Seven months later, in early Spring, mom gives birth to a single baby, whose quills are thankfully soft as they emerge from the womb, hardening within hours, and within a few days, the young one is already foraging, and will stay with Mom for about six months. Porcupines have a wide vocal range, which includes grunts, shrieks, wails, coughs and tooth clicking.

Our own ambassador porcupine, Shmendrick, seems to whine and moan in pleasure when he eats watermelon and butternut squash. Shmendrick was raised at the Refuge after his mom was killed by a car, a common fate, as porcupines figure most moving critters will sensibly avoid them. Shmendrick was released back into the wild several years ago, with instructions to go get a job, and then, to our astonishment, came back after about two years. We do have many wild porcupines living within the Refuge’s 60 acres, but maybe Shmen missed the easy old days of not having to provide his own chow.

Porcupines have claws well suited for climbing, while their hollow quills enable efficient swimming. The quills themselves are principally modified hair, coated with keratin, a fibrous structural protein which is a main component of hair, fingernails, claws, horns, etc. The quills come in a variety of length, thickness and pattern, with the longest being on the rump, with the business end of the hollow shaft featuring a sealed barbed terminus, making the quills very hard to remove, when the air tight quills are warmed by the sun, as well as the skin of the unfortunate recipient.

Porcupines are attracted to buds on tree branches and stems which may not handle their weight, so falling out of trees is a common porcupine fate. Fortunately, their skin contains antibiotics, useful in the event the porcupine quills itself, by falling out of a tree, or when males fight during the mating season.

Porcupines, like other predator targets, would prefer disengagement to fighting, and employ both audible and visual cues to warn would be attackers. These include teeth clattering, turning its back to display the quilled tail, which may be lashed at the attacker, arching the back to make the quills stand up, and shivering to cause the quills to rattle and wave menacingly. As with actual contact with the attacker, the latter activity may cause some quills to shake loose and fall, which may be behind the popular folklore that porcupines can shoot their quills. They can’t. Like possums, porcupines can emit a really offensive odor when frightened or agitated, in their case, from skin glands called rosette on the lower back. A relaxed porcupine can be gently stroked, starting at the head, but don’t try this at home.

If your dog gets quilled, and you can’t pony up the likely expensive vet bill, and you have one seriously patient and trusting dog, you can sever the quills midway, to let the air escape, and gently twist and pull the embedded remains of the quill.

While porcupines are obviously very risky targets for predators, they are effectively attacked by cougars, who may knock the porcupine out of the tree, somewhat less by great horned owls and eagles, and painfully by bears, wolves and coyotes. The porcupine’s main enemy is the fisher, whose numbers continue to grow in much of New York State, as porcupines increase their numbers and range.

Again contrary to popular belief, fishers kill porcupines by delivering fast and repeated bites to the face, on the ground or in a tree, the latter of which may knock the porcupine out of the tree. They may then flip a terribly weakened or injured porcupine, to reach the vulnerable, unquilled underside to penetrate and begin feeding. If porcupines try to defend the face by turning it towards a tree with their back exposed, the nimbleness of the fisher, and the fact that the 180 degree rotational capability of the fisher’s hind ankles, enable it to run down the tree, head first, letting them attack in either direction.

  Steve Hall

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