Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Fifty miles into a two-week backpacking trip in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, my friends and I were beginning to take wildlife encounters almost for granted. We’d caught rainbow trout, seen elk bound across the trail, spooked a mother ptarmigan and her chicks, and watched a family of woodland caribou meander toward camp before scattering for the opposite bank of the river. But nothing prepared us for the preternatural mewing that shocked us awake one night.
Several sniffling, shuffling beasts were brushing against our tents. Our minds raced frantically to identify the strange, almost plaintive whimpers, while our hearts pounded out a primeval guess: grizzly cubs learning how to extract food from a quivering tent, with mom probably somewhere nearby.
We were terrified. Steve, a military type scared only of cluster bombs and germ warfare, stopped breathing. James, a camping veteran whose only fear is premature hair loss, croaked out an impromptu prayer. I nearly wet my sleeping bag.
Our anxiety quickly gave way to amusement, though, when the fearsome flesh-eating marauders waddled past the tent door. Before us, unabashedly savoring the ripe, salty stink of our sweaty clothes and boots, were two porcupines.
Porcupines are not known to travel in packs, but we soon had four or five of the prickly bark-eaters scampering around our tents. For an hour, our campsite was their playground and our equipment a source of great curiosity. They inspected our firepit, found a waterbottle to chew on, and generally chattered about like hyperactive children. The frolic ended with a final nonchalant visit to our door, where, with noses pressed to the screen, the orange-toothed rodents took one last longing sniff of the strange salt lick that had wandered into their woods.
We’d been treated to a rare and delightful scene. The porcupine is by no means endangered, but a hiker is far more likely to spot a bear or wild turkey than this secretive animal.
The North American porcupine, whose scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum, translates appropriately to “the irritable back,” is also known as the quillpig, a nickname bestowed by early European settlers who thought it tasted like wild boar. It’s the odd North American animal that actually benefited from the trapping frenzy of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The lust for fur that decimated beaver populations wreaked a similar havoc on the fisher, a weasel that’s the porcupine’s only successful predator, and permitted porcupines almost unfettered growth.
Their numbers had swelled so by midcentury that several timber-dependent states, irritated by how much damage the animal was doing to marketable trees, placed bounties on their prickly heads. In the 1950s in Vermont, a pair of porcupine ears fetched 50 cents. In recent years, wildlife managers in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and several western states have experimented with a more natural method of controlling porcupine populations, reintroducing the fisher.
A healthy porcupine can live for 10 years or more, subsisting primarily on the bark, leaves, and new buds of sugar maples, beeches, cedars, aspens, and birches. From late summer through fall, it forages for apples, acorns, alfalfa, dandelions, and seeds. It is the continent’s second largest rodent after the beaver, with adults averaging 3 feet in length and weighing from 10 to 20 pounds, with ears on.
Porcupines lead solitary lives, staking claims to patches of prime hardwood forest and defending their feeding grounds zealously. Normally, a porcupine ranges out of its territory only to mate or to find salt.
Porcupine habitat stretches across the continent, excluding only the Southeast and the far North, so almost any wilderness trek will take you through quillpig country. The trick is to spot one. Porcupines stay well-hidden in the backwoods, concealed in thick forest canopy. You’re most likely to find one near a clearing or recent logging site, where succulent young trees abound. The surest sign that porcupines are about is a smattering of twisted, barkless “witch” trees. (Porcupines gradually denude or “girdle” favorite trees, which atrophy and die as they lose their protective outer layers.) Look up and you might see a dark, out-of-place lump.
The best porcupine viewing comes in winter, when a layer of snow helps you identify an active tree by the twigs, bits of bark, and plentiful droppings scattered around its base, and by the well-worn, urine-stained trail that leads through the snow to a nearby den. In fresh snow, this low-slung animal leaves deep furrows instead of its customary pigeon-toed tracks. Still, your best bet for seeing one of these recluses may come on the drive home rather than along the trail, since porcupines frequent rural roads in their quest for road salt.
Like other herbivores with sodium-poor diets, porcupines require massive salt supplements to maintain the intercellular chemical balance necessary for proper nerve and muscle function. They’ll swim backcountry lakes in pursuit of the yellow water lily, a sodium-rich plant fancied by moose. They’ll also chew on sweat-impregnated hiking boots, wooden axe handles, and canoe paddles, as well as outhouses and sheds made from plywood that contains salty glues and fungicides. The salt-encrusted underbodies of cars also invite a good licking.
The porcupine’s distinguishing feature, of course, is its bristling phalanx of 30,000 quills. Members of the anteater, hedgehog, mouse, and rat families also sport spiny overcoats, but the porcupine is the world-renowned bane of curious dogs. Its long guard hairs fuse together to form light, stiff, and virtually hollow 4-inch shafts with points sharp enough to pierce the hides of hungry bears, wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions. The quills on a baby porcupine grow rigid within hours of birth.
Since the quills on a porcupine’s head are shorter and less numerous than those on its flanks, back, and tail, the animal covers its face when under attack, or shoves its snout under a rocky outcrop, presenting only a bristling posterior to its attacker. Any quills lost during fights or molting grow back within days. Its nimble nemesis the fisher succeeds by confusing and exhausting the porcupine with slashing bites to its vulnerable face, then flips it to feast on a meaty belly.
Contrary to popular myth, porcupines cannot fire quills at their attackers. Instead, they set the loosely-
anchored spears with quick tail thrusts to their persecutors’ muzzles. Quills are controlled by specialized muscles just below the skin that let the animal raise its quills quickly in defense and rattle them in warning.
There are countless tales of dogs being wounded by porcupines, and the literature confirms at least one human fatality. One might expect that the danger of impalement is infection, but quills are coated with a fatty acid compound that acts as an antibiotic. Naturalists theorize that the porcupine, a clumsy animal known to skewer itself in falls from leafy perches, developed the coating to ward against self-inflicted infections.
The risk instead lies in the migration of quills through the body. Each quill is barbed at its tip with minuscule shingles that expand and anchor it like a hook in a fish’s jaw. Once embedded, the quill moves deeper into the victim’s body as normal muscle movements tug at the barbs. A broken-off or undetected quill can migrate from its entry point and emerge from another part of the afflicted limb without causing significant pain or damage.
A Jasper Park ranger we met days after our encounter told us of a quill tip that had traveled from his calf up and across his leg to exit from his thigh. Had the quill journeyed far enough to puncture a vital organ, he may not have survived.
You needn’t worry about an unfortunate run-in with a quillpig, though. A porcupine is a slow and rather passive creature that gives ample warning of its presence when frightened. You’ll likely smell a strong, fetid odor and hear tooth-clacking and quill-rattling before you even see it. Since it can embed hundreds of quills with one or two swipes of its tail, give a quillpig wide berth and leash your dog!
If you or your pet should suffer a quilling, grasp each quill with pliers as close to the entry point as possible, and pull straight out gently to avoid breaking off the barbed tip. Your dog may resist, and quills in his mouth may not be visible or accessible, so get to a veterinarian as soon as possible. If you are the victim, see your doctor for a quick inspection.
While some people still consider the porcupine a pest, there’s a new appreciation for the role it plays in forest diversity. The animal’s appetite for the most common tree types creates an opening for rarer species, and its habit of dining on tender upper branches prunes the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of understory plants that provide habitat for birds and mammals.
But no story about porcupines would be complete without an inquiry into their mating rituals. How, exactly, do they do it with all those quills? Carefully, of course, but also with a panache befitting their bizarre appearance. It begins with noisy, often violent showdowns between the males, and proceeds with a whining, tail-thumping routine performed by the dominant male for the desired female. If she consents, he treats her to a series of urine baths. Stricken with mad passion, the female then lowers her quills and places her tail strategically to one side. They mate. Quickly.