It’s not even Valentine’s Day and already I’m thinking of love. Don’t tell My Guy, but this is love of a different sort. And the story all began while tracking with friends earlier this week.
Just as we were about to finish up the program, we spotted the signs of a resident rodent, including downed hemlock twigs and then a den. The den did not entirely make sense due to its placement in what seemed like a wet area, but we decided the critter must have found a dry place above the moisture, for indeed there was scat.
Once spotted, I knew I needed to return, for almost nothing makes me happier than to spot sign left behind by this mammal.
And so I did yesterday afternoon and while taking a different route to the den, I noticed the sashay of said critter as it had waddled through fluffy snow.
Next, I did what I do, and followed the tracks in a different direction than originally intended. And that’s when I saw these, the resident’s name carved on several wooden shingles. It’s an agile critter given that the shingles were posted all the way to the tip top of these pole trees.
Can you read it? Porcupine Lives Here is the inscription engraved on the tree. Actually, it’s a sign of winter feeding for porcupines, like beavers and deer, seek the cambium layer as one of their food sources. Each line shows where the porcupine’s incisors came together as it scraped away to obtain a meal.
And just beyond those pole trees, I spotted a hole that I suspected could only be one thing. A den with tracks leading in and out and the required pee, for such is this mammal’s habit.
A closer look at the dooryard and I spotted a barbed quill and hair. Actually, quills are a modified form of hair.
Did you know that porcupines have a variety of hair? For winter insulation, they have dark, wooly underfur. In addition, there are long guard hairs, short, soft bristles on the tail’s underside, stout whiskers, and then there are those pesky quills.
They aren’t pesky to the porcupine; just us and our pets and any animal that might choose to or accidentally encounter a porcupine.
The quills are 1 – 4 inches in length and lined with a foam-like material composed of many tiny air cells, thus their round, hollow look. There are no quills on the porcupine’s face, belly, or inside its legs.
But on the upper portion of its head, down its back and along the top of its tail, oh my. Within one square inch, there are approximately one hundred quills.
All told, there are over 30,000 quills. But who is counting. Not me. Though I did count these fancy toothpicks, 100 in all, to represent the quills in a square inch.
Despite the myth, porcupines cannot throw their quills. Because the quills are loosely attached, they dislodge easily on contact and stick into a victim’s flesh. And because they are barbed, they are difficult to remove. Talk about a formidable defense!
Returning to the den, which was located within a hollowed tree, I knew the porcupine had visited within the last twenty-four hours but wasn’t so sure it was home at the hour I stopped by.
As I often say, “Scat happens.” And in the case of a porcupine, it happens a LOT! One porcupine evacuates 75 – 200 scats a day. And though this happens as it dines, most of the scat is deposited in the den. Why? Warm insulation on a night as cold as tonight will be with temperatures already in the negatives and wind chills expected to reach -45˚? Or a detractor for predators–do they get a whiff and realize its one they don’t want to visit?
I’m not sure, but this is an example of a winter scat–fibrous from that woody diet of bark and twigs. It’s comma shaped. And often there is a groove down the inside curve.
By spring, it may come as linked pieces, much like a necklace, for grass fibers from a change in diet help create the connection.
Having discovered this den, I decided to follow the tracks, which indicated the mammal had traveled in two directions. Where would it lead me?
Within a tenth or two of a mile, I realized I’d snowshoed back to the spot my fellow trackers and I had discovered two days prior. You can see our snowshoe tracks. But since our visit, the porcupine had happened along, climbed over the downed log and peed.
Did you know that pee plays an important role in a porcupine’s courting ritual. These critters are solitary most of the year, but between September and November they seek a mate. The male, in a bid to woe a female, often approaches and sprays her with his urine. Are you feeling the love? She apparently does, for if she likes the scent of his urine, they might rub noses, or walk on their hind feet before canoodling begins.
Right above the peed-upon log was the entrance to the den and by the sight of the pigpen approach, browner even that it had been previously, I knew this really was active. The soiled snow is from the porcupine walking across its scat to exit the den.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the camera lighting right, but believe me that this one is full of scat as well. And I suspect, though I couldn’t see it, that a porcupine was sleeping somewhere in there, with its tail facing the entrance just in case a predator happened along.
Another indicator of a resident in the house–hoar frost created by breath on a cold winter day.
Right above the den I discovered the tracks of another–enemy number one in a porcupine’s world view. A fisher will kill a porcupine with repeated bites to the face and head.
Coyotes have also been known to work in pairs to maneuver a porcupine onto its back, thus going for the belly, where the hair is wooly.
So the curious story to me was that the fisher passed through after the porcupine was already back in the den, but it didn’t approach the den. Perhaps it had hoped to find the porcupine out in the open and didn’t want to face a tail lashing if it stuck its nose into the house.
Since the pervious visit, there were also more hemlock twigs on the ground and lots more evidence of scat-dirty feet and pee.
Because a porcupine is a rodent, and a large one at that, only exceeded by a beaver in size, it has prominent top and bottom incisors and twig nips are at a 45˚ angle. Can you also spot the scat and hair?
The winter diet consists of needles and bark–favorite trees being hemlock, birch, beech, aspen, elm, oak, willow, fir, and pine.
In spring and summer, a porcupine seeks out grasses and other green plants. And then in the fall, it looks for acorns, tearing into them in a rather messy manner.
In fact, a squirrel’s midden of opened acorns shows that it cuts the hard shell into much neater strips.
A porcupine’s cheek tooth pattern consists of one premolar and 3 molars on each side top and bottom. As you can see, the cheek teeth are modified for grinding since they are strict herbivores.
It’s those prominent incisors that are to be admired. A porcupine uses its large two front teeth for gnawing off bites of food. The incisors continue to grow throughout the porcupine’s life at a rate of twelve inches/year, and the constant gnawing keeps them worn down to the perfect size.
I did not actually see a porcupine yesterday, despite my best hopes, but sometimes it happens when I’m not looking intentionally so there may be a sequel to this story.
A porcupine has poor eyesight, so I’m not sure if it ever actually sees me when it’s up in a tree, especially if I’m standing sorta still, but it does have a good sense of hearing and smell, so I’m sure its aware of my presence. And the tail always faces the trunk in case I decide to climb up–it’s a great defense mechanism–having the tail at the ready to thwart a predator.
I will end this long story with a drawing by a dear friend and fellow naturalist, 8-year-old Aurora. She’s done her homework and I hope one day soon she’ll be able to answer the question: Quill You Be Mine? with a yes!
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