QUODDY NATURE NOTES Porcupines II

Porcupines II

Porcupine on lawn

Porcupine on a lawn three houses down from the Pembroke Library

If anyone is keeping track and counting, I wrote about porcupines 165 issues ago.  I am still fascinated by those critters after all these years, and once in a while surf the net for any porcupine stories and, if the bloggers leave their address, maybe comment on their efforts. One lady down in Connecticut still thinks they are protected in Maine.  Somewhere in a very obscure part of my brain there seems to be a faint recollection of that once being the case, but the only thing I can find was a bounty of 25 cents.  The bounty on porcupines was instituted around 1904 and finally repealed in 1967.

Porcupines are reported to be protected in Virginia and Maryland, but recently lost their protection in Pennsylvania.  A wildlife photographer from southern Maine posted some superb pictures of porcupines but erred a bit when she showed some girdled trees which she blamed on porcupines.  Those unfortunate trees, still standing at Reversing Falls in Pembroke, were attacked by two legged vandals.  The cutest site I found about porcupines was ‘The Porcupine that Thinks it’s a Puppy’.

Our porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, is unique to North America.  It has relatives that live in South America, and more distant relatives that live in the old world.  As the second largest rodent on this continent (the beaver is the biggest), our ‘pine can grow up to 30 pounds and, if it’s lucky, can live upwards of 20 years.  Being a rodent its incisor teeth keep growing and being worn down continuously so they are always sharp and ready for gnawing, no matter the age of the beast, but the ‘cheek teeth’ or molars present a different situation.  After the ‘pine reaches the age of two it has its full complement of 20 teeth, but, like us, its molars wear down and reduce the capability of the animal to process food.  Starvation and the loss of agility because of broken bones incurred from falling out of trees are usually the main reasons for the demise of adult porcupines.

Porcupine eaten Spruce

Abandoned building with ‘pine chewings. How did an animal that probably weighed about 10 pounds crawl up those little spruces and chew off the bark?

By this time of year our porcupines here in the Quoddy region have lost upwards of 20 percent of their normal body weight.  The foods that they eat in the winter are generally very low in nutrition, and the ‘pine has more problems obtaining it.  It is surprising how finicky they are.  An individual in its home range may settle on the bark of only a few types of trees, and in my area usually these are hackmatack and cedar, but sometimes spruce if it is close to the winter den.  Like most herbivores, porcupines depend on a very busy digestive system to get the benefit of the stuff that they eat.

The bark must be chewed and then it is processed in a pouch off of the beginning of the large intestine called a ‘caecum’.  In the caecum the slurry of what the ‘pine ate is worked on by millions of aerobic microbes unwittingly cultivated by the ‘pine to process the tannins and other toxins of his selected diet into a suitable form for digestion.  There are some trees, like basswood, that are apparently very easy on the porcupine’s digestive system, and these are prized.  It seems that all of my trees must fall into this category, even though I have never planted any basswood.

With the coming of spring, life will take on a little easier aspect for the ‘pine, as their food supply will change to almost any type of fresh greenery.  Here in the Quoddy region their salt requirement is often satisfied by coastal vegetables like sea pickle and sea side orach.  Porcupines can be a decided nuisance in gardens and orchards, and sometimes I resort to drastic solutions to solve this problem.  Out in the woods, however, I do like to observe them and try to carefully pat them between the eyes.  I have hand fed some wild porcupines, after judging their personalities, and they really like apples, and apparently Red Delicious are at the top of their list.  I have tried the meat of porcupine but found my preparation not very interesting.  Nicholas Denys, writing about North America in the 1600’s, reported that porcupines, when roasted, are “…very good to eat…”  I haven’t tried roasting one yet.