Facts You Never Wanted to Know About Porcupine Sex

My coworker at my assistantship this semester just finished editing this video featuring both of us (and our friend Bob) for her web series, Cool Things in Nature.

In addition to the return of my raspberry-colored coat and dorky hat, this features me talking (again) about fisher predation… and Julia telling you more than you ever really wanted to know about porcupine mating rituals.

How to Tell You’re in the Presence of a Porky

If you’re getting sick of hearing me go on about porcupines, feel free to skip this post. But if, like me, you think porcupines are AWESOME, then read on.

Recently I was walking along a trail when I almost stepped on these small, oblong droppings.

When I looked at the snow around me more closely, I realized that it was littered with pine needles and even a few whole pine twigs.

So I craned my neck to peer up into the pine tree above me, and discovered that most of the branches I could see had patches of bark missing.

I looked and looked and but did not actually spot the porcupine. I’m sure it was somewhere nearby, hidden in the branches, watching me. I can’t help but wonder how many porcupines I’ve walked underneath without knowing it since I moved here.

Update – I originally took these photos last Monday (February 6). On Thursday I was leading a group of home school students along this same trail and pointed out the signs of porcupine activity. A couple of the girls walked ahead, found another tree with fallen needles and fresh scat around its base, looked up, and spotted the culprit. I was so pleased that not only did the whole group get great looks at a particularly fat, impressive porcupine, but they also found it by applying what I had just taught them!

Return of the Porcupine

Remember my porcupine friend from last fall? I hadn’t seen him* in a while, but Monday afternoon my roommate happened to glance out the patio doors and spot him descending from a tree. Not having had a chance to get good photos of him herself, she quickly put on her boots and went outside, but he disappeared down a burrow rather than posing for her. (Clearly he likes me better!)

Yesterday I went outside to investigate his home a little further. Here’s the hole he disappeared into – there are tracks leading up to it, and you can see where the bark has been gnawed off the young sugar maple outside the entrance.

Actually, a lot of the small sugar maples outside our house had strips of bark missing, now that I knew to look. (At some point I’ll have to do a post on winter tree ID. Also, I love how for this photo my camera somehow focused on every tree except the one I was actually looking at.)

A criss-crossing network of tracks through the snow connects all of his favorite trees.

Finally I noticed a suspicious lump in the branches of a nearby fir tree. There he was, watching my every move from a safe vantage point.

North Woods natives consider porcupines to be pests, because of their penchant for chewing on houses. However, the architect of our building wisely put several feet of stonework at the base of all the exterior walls to deter them, and my roommate and I are absolutely enchanted to have a porcupine neighbor that we can watch from the comfort of our couch!

More information on the North American Porcupine can be found here, and this looks like a fun porcupine-related craft if you have kids.

*I have no idea if our porcupine is male, but referring to it as “it” all the time was going to bother me, so deal with it.

The Porcupine on My Patio

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.

A PORCUPINE!!!

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.