Yesterday afternoon I emerged from my room after a couple hours of homework and was brought up short by what I saw outside our sliding doors, lazily munching on the grass just beyond the patio.
Considering how common porcupines are in the woods around here, it’s surprisingly rare to see one alive. (Dead is another story – at times it seems like there’s a roadkill porcupine every hundred feet or so along the county highway. Their disinclination to move at anything faster than a waddle is hazardous to their health.) The week that I moved here I saw two on one walk, but then not another one since, so one turning up right outside my apartment came as a surprise.
I (naturally) scrambled to get my camera, and then went outside to take some photos without even bothering to put a coat on first, I was so excited. It was a very cooperative critter. When your body is covered in nasty spines, there’s really no point in bothering to expend the energy to run away from a predator – the same is true, as I once discovered, of Australian echidnas, the porcupine’s convergent-evolution twin. While the porcupine in my yard trundled slowly off the grass to sit at the base of a tree as I approached it, it didn’t actually climb the tree, just chattered its teeth softly (a sign of annoyance) as I got my photos.
(In case anyone is wondering at this point: the popular myth that porcupines can “throw” their quills is totally false. As long as I wasn’t stupid enough to reach out and touch the thing, I was perfectly safe crouching on the ground next to it.)
Porcupines are considered something of a pest around here due to their propensity for chewing on buildings – in fact, all the buildings here on campus have about four feet of stonework around the bases of their exterior walls as a porcupine deterrent. And despite their impressive defense strategy, they do have one major predator: the fisher, a large weasel that attacks a porcupine by biting it repeatedly on its spine-free face. Since their face is their most vulnerable spot, a porcupine reacts to a perceived threat by presenting you with its quill-covered butt.
I know that to those in the North Woods porcupines are old hat, but those of you from other parts of the continent and the world can’t deny that having a porcupine in my yard is pretty cool… right? Anyway, I’m leaving tomorrow to go to Arizona for the holiday break. No porcupines there.