Several autumns ago while hunting ruffed grouse on a warm and sunny afternoon, I noticed a dark blob in the canopy of a small birch tree. At first I thought it was a gray squirrel nest, but something wasn’t quite right about it so I approached it for a closer look.
I soon discovered what the unusual shape really was — a porcupine. The rotund, medium-sized rodent hardly paid me notice, except for a casual downward glance and a momentary stare-down. Indeed, rather than flee or hide, here was a forest dwelling, arboreal creature programmed to remain calm and fearless in the face of a threat.
On another porcupine encounter (actually my first experience ever) was also during a ruffed grouse hunt. A friend and I were hunting in an Otter Tail County woodland about 30 years ago with our two dogs — my friend’s bouncy springer spaniel along with my overbearing Chesapeake Bay retriever.
During one memorable moment of the hunt, our dogs disappeared into the thickets and had to be called back. Listening, and then calling again for the dogs, we soon heard them crashing through the brush in their haste to return to us. The first to arrive was my chessie.
As she ran toward us, I saw that the brown dog’s face appeared unusually white in color. Seconds later, when she reached my feet, she collapsed to the ground and began pawing at her muzzle. The poor dog had evidently bitten into a porcupine because the “white” color that I had seen from the distance on her muzzle were tens of dozens of porcupine quills imbedded everywhere throughout her head, neck, nose, and mouth.
We spent several frantic minutes pulling out as many of the hateful quills as we could, some of which we had to leave inside her until we got back to the farm and had access to a few tools. The springer, oddly enough, had only one quill in which to endure: a lone quill at the very tip of her sensitive nose. We were able to remove it immediately.
In spite of the weaponry possessed by porcupines, the animals are really quite docile and harmless. That withstanding, porcupines are armed with over 30,000 quills, which, when administered to an unwitting predator, can cause painful wounds and sometimes death.
Contrary to what many people believe porcupines are unable to “throw” or “shoot” their quills out of their bodies. Countless cartoons and stories portray porcupines shaking themselves vigorously while quills are propelled from their bodies in a spray of lethal projectiles flying everywhere. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While porcupines can and do swat attackers with their thick and muscular, quill-covered tails, and thus inflicting an unhealthy dose of piercing quills into the bodies of aggressors, most quills sustained by victims are through their own meddling — like my dog trying to bite or kill the porcupine she had attacked.
The quills themselves are interesting structures. They’re actually modified, somewhat hollow, hairs that lay flat when the porcupine is in a relaxed, normal state of behavior. However, when a porcupine is frightened, it can raise these special hairs — their quills — to give themselves a much larger appearance, not to mention a near impenetrable pincushion defense.
Hardly noticeable to the naked eye, the sharp tips of quills are further enhanced by dozens of microscopic, backward-pointing barbs. Not only does this ensure that the quills delivered into the skin of an attacker remain imbedded, but that they also inflict pain when attempts are made to pull them out.
Furthermore, the action of the contracting muscles of a victim’s body, coupled with the barbed quills’ unique design, causes quills to work themselves deeper into the body. Once under the skin, quills often migrate to other areas. If a vital organ is the final resting stop for a nomadic quill, the arrow-like quill can potentially penetrate the organ and kill the victim.
It sounds harsh, that is, being skewered by quills, but there are few wild animals that will bother the unassuming vegetarian rodent. Its size alone is deterrent enough to most predators. Porcupines are the second largest native rodent in North America, second only to the beaver. The quill-covered, slow moving porcupine can obtain weights of over 15 pounds and body lengths of almost three feet from nose to tail.
During the spring, summer, and autumn months, porcupines live on a wide variety of plant material, including herbaceous forest plants and a multitude of hardwood tree leaves. In the wintertime, however, is when the porcupine switches its diet to tree bark, hence the poor reputation it has with foresters and landowners. Indeed, it is well known that porcupines can and do sometimes kill the tops of trees from their bark removing activities.
Yet, tree girdling aside, the humble porcupine, a species of mammal that first arrived in North America from the South American tropics over 2.5 million years ago, somehow has not succeeded in eating themselves out of house and home. The forest, which has managed to sustain porcupines throughout the eons, still persists despite the porcupine’s ability to kill some trees. Like other natural events such as wind, fire, insects and disease that can transform and renew areas of forestland, porcupines are yet another agent that contributes to the functionality of an ever-changing and healthy natural environment.
The porcupine I encountered several years ago was minding its own business as it foraged contentedly on birch leaves above my head. I observed the porcupine as it deliberately and intelligently reached out and grasped with its dexterous “hands” and nimble “fingers” various leaf-filled limbs in what appeared to be a thoughtful and systematic manner. With each reach the animal pulled the forest salad into its hungry mouth and slowly chewed its meals while paying little attention to me. It was fascinating to watch.
I like porcupines. I always have. Porcupines are the quiet little forest fellows that occupy their rightful place in the woods as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)