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Rodents on the Range: The North American Porcupine

It is winter on the Chico Basin Ranch. Winter is the best time to find porcupines as the trees have lost most of their leaves. I frequently see them in the thicket near the bird banding station or the Bell Grove. In the last month, I have seen a few porcupines foraging on the ground as well as several in trees. Yesterday I watched one running across the floor of the thicket, and photographed it climbing over a log, before disappearing into the thick brush.

Porcupines live in wooded areas and climb trees to feed and escape predators. During the summer, they eat tree twigs, leaves, and green plants like grasses and clovers. In the winter they primarily eat tree bark and sometimes dried grasses and forbs. Porcupines do not hibernate although they will den in caves, hollow logs, or dense brush during bad weather or when giving birth.

The Porcupine is the second largest rodent in North America next to the American Beaver. Like all rodents, porcupine’s front incisors grow continuously throughout its lifetime, as their teeth will wear away chewing tree bark. Porcupines are one of the longest-lived rodents, sometimes reaching ages over twenty years.

Porcupines have long, stout claws used for climbing. They are covered in a dark brown undercoat and long black, blonde, and gray guard hairs. Also their sides, back, and tail are covered in quills, hollow tubes with sharp barbed ends. The quill is formed of hairs covered in a coat of keratin, a material found in fingernails or bird beaks. Some Native American tribes would use these quills as part of decorative beadwork on various leather garments.

A porcupine defends itself by fleeing whenever possible, although they are relatively slow, cumbersome runners, as seen in a photo below. It will sometimes attack, but most often it will turn its back and use its quills to ward off an attacker. A swipe of its tail will leave its attacker embedded with several sharp, barbed quills, quite a painful experience.

So with all those quills, how do porcupines mate? … Very carefully! The female will go into estrus for only about 12 hours sometime in September. During mating season, the males will fight ferociously and can get injured. When the female is ready to mate, she will lay her quills flat and curve her tail up over her back indicating she is receptive. Once the pups are born, she will nurse them for about four months.

Shane Morrison retired from a career as a computer scientist and space system engineer; however, he has also worked as a biologist, ecologist, and fly-fishing instructor. He is keenly interested in animal behavior and communications. As naturalist, photographer, and writer, he strives to capture scenes of both grandeur and intimacy, and portray moments in nature that people rarely see. He hopes his photos and stories will deepen people’s appreciation for nature, the diversity of animal life, and the importance of conservation.

Instagram @ShaneMorrison47
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