If you’re looking for signs of wildlife this winter, forget about paw prints. One of our native mammals faithfully plows its “roads” after each snowfall, and you can often follow these channels right to the fearless critter itself.
With a truly adorable face and a rather unfriendly backside, the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is the only animal with a six-million acre park named after it.
One of 29 species worldwide, our North American porcupine is the largest New World species, growing to 91 cm or 36 inches long and weighing as much as 16 kg or 35 pounds. That makes it the second-largest North American rodent behind the beaver, but still puny compared to an African crested porcupine which can exceed 27 kg or 60 lbs. It is also the only cold-hardy porcupine, and one of the few that regularly climb trees.
Its English name derives from the Latin for “quill pig,” but the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawks) call it anêntaks, which literally means “bark eater.” This is descriptive of the animal,certainly, but ages ago it was a less-than-endearing epithet applied to their Algonquin neighbors. Historically, Algonquin territory encompassed what we now call the Adirondacks, a name derived from anêntaks. Unlike the Mohawks who have farmed sustainably for at least a thousand years, Algonquins were hunter-gatherers. Either by choice or need, they would sometimes eat the inner bark of pine, maple, elm and other trees. Eventually the Algonquins moved from the area to points north and east, but the bark-eater place name persisted.
Porkies are active all winter, which of course is a great time to track them. More or less bullet-shaped, they make wonderful plows, carving channels through the snow. Since they tend to use the same paths, you can go out after a new snowfall to see which troughs have been cleared in the night. In contrast to most species, our porcupines are not strictly nocturnal, but they do tend to be less active in the middle of the day.
Porcupine feet are pebbly textured and have no fur, and in deep snow you may also see marks where its tail drags side to side as it waddles. In cases where the claws do not register, its footprint can look (I think, at least) unnervingly like that of a small child.
Like all porcupines, ours is covered in hairs interspersed with up to 30,000 hollow barbed quills. This accounts for their cavalier attitude toward scary stuff like humans, dogs and, unfortunately, cars. Quills are not missiles – they aren’t launched at a predator, but will come off at the drop of a hat, provided you drop said hat on the porcupine. The barbed quill-ends are amazingly good at sticking to skin and other things. If not removed, quills work their way through flesh, and can be fatal depending on their trajectory.
Quills were and are used the world over by indigenous peoples for embroidering. Usually white at the base and fading to dark brown at the tips, quills have an innate beauty but are often dyed and worked into leather or textiles. In North America, native peoples reportedly would throw a deer hide over a porcupine to harvest quills that stuck to it. I have taken quills in a similar way from road-killed porkies using a leather glove.
Most of the time, quills lie flat. When confronted by a predator, a porcupine raises them, and keeps its back end to the threat. A porky can lash its eight- to ten-inch long tail side to side, creating a protective radius around itself. Fishers, fierce predators and one of the largest members of the weasel family, are quick enough to outflank a porcupine and kill it by repeatedly assailing the quill-free head. My dad remarked that in a survival situation, the porky is the only animal one can kill with a stick. He didn’t explain how one would eat it, other than “very carefully.”
Having a cute face only gets you so far in life, and some folks despise porcupines because their bark-eating lifestyle damages, or even kills, trees. Porkies are attracted to salt as well, and will gnaw on tool handles, canoe paddles or other items handled by people, which doesn’t thrill the owners of those objects. One year, some bark-eaters got into the crawl space under my house and chewed a large section of the planks beneath the kitchen floor. I can only imagine that some kind of salty liquid may
have been spilled decades ago in the kitchen.
In addition to eating bark of all kinds, they love herbaceous plants, and are in clover (so to speak) in a field of alfalfa. They also have a particular weakness for apples. It is impressive how far out on a branch a porcupine will go to get one, seeming to defy gravity.
Porkies usually make their homes in rock crevices and caves, or sometimes in hollow trees. Breeding is in October and December. In May and June, females may birth as many as four pups, but generally just one. Not only do they have a low birth rate, it takes more than two years for them to fully mature. In the wild, a porcupine may live 17 or 18 years, with the oldest on record being 28 years.
A former neighbor of mine, long since passed away, had as a young man been given an orphan porcupine. He said it made a great pet, and showed me pictures of the full-size porky in his arms. Kids and adults alike enjoy watching porcupines, as they are one of the few wild animals that will go about their business, or at most walk away slowly, in spite of such ogling. If there aren’t any where you live, perhaps you can make a trip to that northern New York State Park. You know, the “Porcupine Mountains.”
Mohawk spellings courtesy of Salmon River Mohawk Language Program.
Photo of Porcupine by Mary Harrsch.