Animal of the Week: North American Porcupine -Erethizon dorsatum

Caught this little bugger munching on the porch last spring!

These cute little bark eaters can be a common site while hiking in the early morning or early evening. It is not uncommon to wake up to the sound of a porcupine chewing on the shelter, privy or picnic table while trying to get some of the salty goodness that they desire.

Before moving to the western part of New York State I had never actually had a porcupine encounter in the wild. During my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail I had seen the signs of their presence and read journal entries at shelters about porcupine encounters, but was never lucky enough to see one in person. My first sighting while backpacking occurred during my end-to-end hike of the Finger lakes Trail in Allegany County. Not seeing them on the trail is ironic because every spring it is now a regular occurrence for porcupines to show up at my house to chew on the pressure treated wood on my porch and I have spent many a night chasing the little buggers away!

Identification

From Enchantedlearning.com

From Enchantedlearning.com

North American Porcupines are some of the biggest rodents that you will encounter and are only rivaled by beavers. The porcupines coloration is generally black or deep brown to tan.  They can weigh between 12 and 35 pounds and their body length can vary between 25 and 36 inches.  Porcupines can live up to 18 years and adults can weight up to 40 lbs.

The quills covering their backs help to easily identify porcupines. Porcupine quills will typically lie flat until the porcupine is threatened. Common lore is that porcupines can shoot the quills, which is false. The quills are actually designed by mother nature to detach quite easily when touched and a porcupine will release their quills as a primary mode of defense.  There are approximately 30,000 quills on an adult and each quill has between 700 and 800 barbs on the tip.

Diet

Porcupines are herbivores that eat twigs/buds and green leafy plants and even apples. During winter their diets mainly consist of bark and buds. Take precautions with your gear as porcupines are attracted to the salts left behind from your sweat, especially your boots.

Mating 

A female porcupine reaches sexually maturity around 18 months of age. The breeding season can last from September to November. Their gestational period can last from 205 to 215 days. One porcupette is usually born in the spring, but porcupettes can be born as late as August.  It is rare for a female to have more than one porcupette.  A newborn porcupette weighs about 1 pound and are approximately 10 inches in length.

Females will provide a scent in their urine and on their bodies that signals they are coming into estrus. Females may urinate from a tree to broadcast that they are coming into estrus. Since female porcupines are in estrus for about 12 hours, time is short for the female to choose her man.

Males, like with most animals, fiercely compete for the right to breed.  Battles can be violent resulting in serious bites, the exchanging of quills and even death.  During courtship it is not uncommon for the breeding pair to wrestle, chase each other, and be vocal. After a male and female have come to terms with the fact that they like each other, the male will embark on a weird custom urinating on her.  He will stand on his hind legs and give her a good hosing down of urine.

Habitat of the North American Porcupine

Commonly, porcupines live in coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests throughout North America. North American porcupines are very adaptable animals and may spend most of their time up in trees or on the ground.  The time a porcupine spends on the ground is dependent on how much ground cover there is available and the population of predators. During the cold winter month’s porcupines typically hide away in dens.

Hiking with Dogs

Your dog may encounter porcupines while out on a hike in the woods, or even right around your house, depending on where you live. It is not uncommon for curious dogs to get quills embedded in their faces, ears or any part of their body that comes into contact with a porcupine.

Quills sticking into your pooch sounds awful and it is painful for your dog! To avoid this situation keep your dog under your control and on a leash. If your dog does get into a tangle with a porcupine you will want to remove the quills as quickly as possible.  If the quills are left in, they can work their way deeper into the tissue leading to infection and in the worst-case scenario lead to death. If you are unable to remove the quills on your own, don’t make the mistake of cutting or breaking them! Instead get to a vet a quick as possible to have the quills removed.  By leaving the quills in place you will provide the veterinarian more to work with when they are removed.

 

Mom and her porcupette out for a stroll.

If you are lucky you will get a chance to watch these cute critters lumber through the woods (and not chew on your house)!

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