Don’t mess with the prickly porcupine
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
While out in the woods on a recent excursion, I saw a number of bleeding white pines. Some animal had climbed about 6-8 feet up in them and gnawed away at the bark. As the weather warms, the sap begins to run, and it bleeds down the sides of the tree. This doesn’t usually kill the tree, but it can disfigure its top. While we have a few different rodent relatives that like to gnaw bark and lick sap, I am inclined to say the most likely culprit in this case would be a porcupine.
Porcupines are the second largest rodent in North America, the beaver being the largest. A full grown adult porcupine can reach 30 inches long and weigh 30 pounds. There are 27 varieties of porcupine located around the world. In Wisconsin, we only have one porcupine species—the North American porcupine. The North American porcupine is unique among these subspecies because it is the only one in the world adapted to cold winter temperatures. In the wild, a porcupine might live six years, which is actually quite long for a rodent; in captivity, they can live up to 18 years. The female porcupine gives birth to one offspring a year, called a porcupette, and don’t worry – porcupettes are born headfirst, and the quills don’t harden until after the baby is born.
Porcupines have a very good sense of smell, but very poor vision. They are mostly nocturnal; this is primarily because they feed on leaves, twigs, and bark, and the best materials and nutrients are available at night when the tree is not actively photosynthesizing. They also like to eat green plants like skunk cabbage, clover, and lupine during the growing season.
Porcupines are best known for their quills, actually a kind of modified hair with tiny scaly hooks at the tip and base. The shaft of the quill is spongy and somewhat hollow. When the porcupine feels threatened, it turns its back and rump toward its attackers and tightens a special muscle under the skin. This loosens the skins grip on the quills, making them easier to pull off. In fact, some might even fall off if the animal shakes or jumps, giving the illusion that the quill was thrown.
However, the quills are not thrown or ejected by the porcupine. When an animal touches a quill, the tip sticks in the skin, the tiny scales grab on and hold it there, and the spongy air-filled shaft swells with the added body heat of the victim. The result is a painful distraction that allows the porcupine to move away from its attacker. There are still some predators that focus on eating porcupine. The fisher is well-known for its ability to slowly and painfully kill a porcupine, flip it over, and eat it from the stomach, where there are no quills. Bobcats also eat them, as do owls and a couple other predators, but sometimes they are mortally injured by their prey.
Porcupines like to pick a favorite tree, called a loafing tree, and slowly kill it by munching off the bark. If you see this happening to a tree you want to save, you can try putting an exclosure around the tree, like some smooth tin wrapped around the trunk. Because they have to gnaw constantly to keep their front teeth short, and because they really like salt, porkies will chew animal bones, shed deer antlers, tool handles, footwear, clothing, paint, mineral licks, road salt, soaps, plywood, siding or anything else that has salt in it, or has been soaked with sweat or urine containing salt.
While it is fairly easy to trap, fence out, or shoot porcupines to protect plywood and siding, it may not be desirable. Applying an anti-cribbing solution may be a better solution. Anti-cribbing solution, like Carbolineum, is a chemical that horse owners put on the top rails of horse stalls to keep horses from chewing on them.
Porcupines are not a game animal; in fact, they are an unregulated animal in Wisconsin. This means they can be shot when causing damage, they can legally be live trapped and relocated, and they can be legally captured and kept as pets.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to [email protected]