The Track of the Porcupine
By Tamia Nelson
February 9, 2010
When I set out in the morning, conditions were perfect for tracking. It had snowed during the night, and a dusting of downy flakes now covered the two‑inch crust that was the only remnant of last week's storm. I couldn't ask for more. So I shouldered my rucksack with its load of essentials and camera gear and hit the trail to see what I could see.
My breath fogged before my face until I pulled a neck‑gaiter over my mouth. Even then my eyes watered in the freshening breeze. The red line in the thermometer hadn't yet hit the ten‑degree mark, and the snow squeaked underfoot with each step I took. A low sun shone wanly through the nearly leafless beeches and feathery hemlocks, rendering the wooded hillside in stark chiaroscuro. Chickadees chattered in the cedars and nuthatches honked in reply, their piping voices barely audible above the baritone rumble of The River. In the distance, trees cracked like rifle shots as the early light warmed the hidden folds in the surrounding hills. Meanwhile, a steady rain of tiny ice shards showered down on me as I walked.
Red squirrels scolded from high branches while I read the record of their recent movements in the fresh snow. The forest's night shift had been at work, too. A network of new paths showed where mice had scampered between fallen limbs and clumps of nodding weed stalks, and the swift sallies of foraging shrews were evident in a crisscross tracery of tunnels. Then, as I skirted the outlying sentries of a grove of hemlocks, I saw the first signs that a porcupine had also passed this way.
At just that point in the trail, a towering hemlock hangs over the Narrows, a rocky cleft through which The River rushes darkly between bulging buttresses of root‑beer‑brown ice. Scuff marks and scattered fragments of bark showed me where the porcupine had inched down the hemlock's trunk, using his tail as a prop. Tips of hemlock boughs and tiny cones littered the snow, giving ample evidence that he — of course, "he" might have been a she; I'll stick to "he," though — had dined well. But now, having eaten, he was on his way home. His tracks showed where he'd come from and where he was going. Wanting to know more of his story than I could read in that one spot, I followed him…
Into the Hemlock Wood
The inner bark and needles of the hemlock are perhaps a porcupine's favorite winter foods, but he's not a fussy eater. In fact, porcupines eat all manner of vegetable fodder, from flowers to fruit. But there aren't many flowers blooming on a snow‑covered Canoe Country slope in January. So needles and bark are the mainstay of the porcupine's cold‑weather diet. And the evidence at my feet left no doubt as to this porcupine's meal. From some secure perch high in the hemlock, he'd deftly sliced through twigs and small branches with a few slashes of sharp teeth. Here's what the cut ends of the branches looked like:
This little branch is about as thick as a pencil, and it appears to have been severed in just two or three bites. The teeth of the porcupine are well adapted to such a task. Porcupines are rodents, and their incisors — their cutting teeth — never stop pushing out. Only regular use can keep them trimmed back and prevent dangerous overgrowth, but I didn't think the porcupine whose track I was now tracing would have any problems on that score. If the scattered branch tips were any indication, his teeth were in fine working order.
I continued up the slope, following a well‑worn track whose parallel ruts suggested long and regular use:
Now here's my gloved hand for scale:
Porcupines are built for comfort, not for speed, as their waddling, pigeon‑toed gait attests — though this can be hard to see, since their tracks are often more or less effaced by the sweep of a broad, muscular tail.
Following in the footsteps of a porcupine presents other difficulties, too. Though they're large rodents — an adult's thickset body can be more than two feet long, with the tail adding another foot or so — porcupines don't stand very tall. That means they are able to walk under deadfalls and through thickets that even coyotes can't negotiate. And since I'm bigger than a coyote, I soon had to leave the porcupine's track…
To circle round, seeing evidence of his past meals as I did so:
Porcupines sit on limbs or cling to the trunks of trees while dining on bark, leaving characteristically irregular, smooth‑edged scars like the one in the picture. Notwithstanding these weeping wounds, however, hemlocks often bounce right back. This particular tree has been furnishing meals to hungry porcupines for at least three years, yet it erupts in new growth every spring.
Continuing to climb, I quickly picked up the porcupine's track again, just a little higher on the ever‑steepening slope. I then followed it to a leaf‑lined hollow in a hemlock trunk. Was this my quarry's home base?
The abundance of fresh scat suggested that it was, and the 18‑inch‑wide hollow was certainly large enough to shelter a sleeping porcupine, curled up against the winter's icy winds. Yet it soon became apparent that this wasn't his only refuge. Still further up the slope, I found another den, smaller but better sheltered:
As you can see, it's located in a natural cleft, and probably hidden by a lush growth of fern in summer, as well. But the fresh scat and urine‑stained snow suggest that this den sees regular use in winter, too. Snug though it is, however, it provides no protection against one of the porcupine's most implacable foes: the hypertrophied weasel known as the fisher. And there were fishers in the woods on this day. Their tracks ran back and forth across the slope above and around the den:
Closer examination showed that a pair of fishers (possibly siblings from last year's litter) had been on the porcupine's trail. Fishers are fast, lithe, and large — an adult male can weigh as much as a full‑grown porcupine — and they have dog‑like jaws with impressive teeth. Moreover, unlike many lesser predators, fishers are not deterred by the porcupine's formidable quills. Their attack is as daring as it is effective. They lunge again and again at a porcupine's face, snapping and tearing at the unprotected flesh until, bleeding and blinded, the hapless animal exposes his vulnerable throat and belly to a final, lethal assault.
This time, however, fortune was on the side of the porcupine. His track continued on without faltering, and I followed after him.
The path led along a snow‑covered deadfall, where the porcupine paused to nibble at the branch lying diagonally across the hollow trunk. Shreds of bark on the snowy surface of the fallen tree hinted that he might have taken refuge in the top of the shattered standing trunk for a time. Perhaps he owed his life to this happy accident.
Luckily, few predators can match the fisher's ruthless efficiency, and for the most part, porcupines are well served by their…
Indeed, the porcupine's quills offer more than passive protection. While the oft‑repeated claim that they can "throw their quills" has no basis in fact — my Grandad quashed this fanciful notion with a few scornful words when I was still a girl — the quills are easily shed, leaving a painful barb buried deep in the nose or mouth of any would‑be predator. Furthermore, the porcupine's muscular tail can deliver a powerful blow, with a lasting sting. In fact, unfortunate attackers have been known to die from the aftereffects of a porcupine's spiky counterstroke. Here are some close‑ups of the sharp end of a porcupine's arsenal:
A single encounter with these is often enough to put a predator off porcupine meat for life. Few attackers fail to get the point. Individual quills are hollow modified hairs, usually between two and four inches in length, equipped with barbs and only loosely attached to the porcupine's skin. When a porcupine is relaxed, his quills stand at ease, all but concealed by the animal's long, coarse fur. But when danger threatens, the quills immediately jump to attention, ready to meet any assailant head on. And, yes, baby porcupines (they rejoice in the delightful name porcupets) come into the world fully armed. Happily for the harassed mother, though, their arsenal of quills is relatively soft, and sheathed in a tough, membranous protective sack. Once the sack is removed — if it doesn't burst when the porcupet emerges from the birth canal, the mother tears it open — the quills rapidly harden.
Perhaps because their defensive armory is so intimidating, porcupines are rather placid creatures. Last spring I happened on a pair who were dining on succulent aspen leaves. It took me a while to recognize what I was seeing. Here's what caught my eye at first:
Do you see them? No? Then here's a little help:
My way home took me right past the pair, and my telephoto lens brought one of them very close indeed:
Their large eyes are near‑sighted, but porcupines have good noses and a keen sense of smell, so this one probably caught my scent early on. Stepping back a bit now, you can see the unprotected belly and broad, muscular tail:
The next shot gives us a glimpse of strong, orange teeth:
The pair exchanged grunted comments before climbing down from their respective trees, moving backwards and using their broad tails as braces during the descent:
Then they waddled leisurely off together, heading deeper into the woods. I was very sorry that I'd disturbed them at their meal, but their departure gave little indication of panic. Perhaps they'd just decided they'd had enough to eat.
Good as porcupines' defensive armory is, however, it's no match for their deadliest enemy, and that enemy isn't the fisher. It's the automobile. On summer bicycle trips I often come across porcupines who've been struck and killed by cars. I found this unlucky animal on a farm road. Before moving him off the highway and onto the verge, I took a photo of his long‑clawed hind foot:
In truth, porcupines' confidence in the strength of their defenses contributes to their vulnerability on the highways. Standing your ground and erecting your quills may make sense when your enemy is a fox or even a fisher, but it offers no protection against a speeding car. When metal and flesh meet, the end result is a foregone conclusion. All that remains of this fellow, another unfortunate I encountered while bicycling, are bones, a bit of leathery skin, and a drift of quills. And as the picture makes clear, there were a lot of quills:
Why do porcupines cross the road? For all the usual reasons: to find food, to court a mate, or just to see what lies over the next rise in the ground. (Is curiosity a uniquely human emotion? I doubt it.) And there's one more reason for them to venture forth over the asphalt — to lick salt from the road surface. Porcupines love salt, as more than a few paddlers have discovered when they woke to find their best ash blades shortened by several inches, or even gnawed right in two. A lot of backcountry outhouses have also fallen victim to the porcupine's passion for salty snacks. Urine splashing on the wooden walls and seat leaves a residue of nitrate behind when it evaporates, and nitrates are salty. (As a matter of fact, urine was once a primary source of potassium nitrate for the manufacture of gunpowder.) The moral of the story? Aim carefully when you avail yourself of the comforts of a rustic privy, and be sure to rinse the sweaty residue from your paddles and packs before you turn in.
Back on the trail, I was ready to call it a day. The tracks I'd been following led down a steep slope into a hollow that afforded plenty of shelter. As I leaned against a maple sapling at the brink of the drop‑off, I noticed a place where the young tree had been stripped of bark. And the wound was fresh. It seemed likely that the porcupine who'd breakfasted early on hemlock had eaten a snack before turning in.
I stood there for a long time, studying the snow‑covered slope and its tangle of fallen trees. Suddenly, I saw a movement in the distance. Was it…? It was. But just as my conscious mind registered the presence of the porcupine, he disappeared into a dark crevice between two rocks. The slope wasn't far from the spot where I'd photographed the porcupine pair last summer. Could the animal I'd been tracking for the last couple of hours have been one of my old friends? Well, yes. He could have been. It really didn't matter, though. Whoever he was, I wished him pleasant dreams. And then I turned away and started back toward home, my breath fogging before my face and frost forming on my collar.
I've crossed paths with porcupines many times, but not until this winter did I follow in a porcupine's footsteps. I don't know why I waited so long. These phlegmatic yet elusive creatures lead fascinating lives, and I'm glad I took the time to get to know them better. How about you? Why don't you join me on the trail? There's fresh snow on the ground, and the game's afoot. But hurry! Spring is already in the air, and winter's days are numbered. There's not a moment to be lost!
Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.