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COLUMN: Beware the pesky porcupine poking around area!

Outdoors columnist came across some rather distinctive and disgusting signs that a food-searching porcupine had visited his garage recently
20130516_Prairie Smoke Reserve_porcupine (Hawke) (5) (1)
Porcupines are native to our area, which is a good reminder to be mindful of these somewhat dangerous mammals.

When it comes to finding porcupines, or at least signs that they are nearby, it’s usually in one of five ways: it’s sitting in a tree, dead on the road, there is a set of tracks dredged through the snow, a den inside a hollow tree is found with mounds of peanut sized pellet poops at the entrance, or a dog shows up with a face full of quills.

But cleaning up our carport, I found a new way to list them as being present.

We moved a few large pails that had been used for bird seed storage last winter and found a pile of animal poop on the floor. Normally we find raccoon poop, which is quite smelly and really disgusting to deal with.

However, this pile looked like a handful of coffee beans had been placed on the floor. (Perhaps I should have placed a notice at the beginning of this article to avoid reading this while enjoying your morning coffee?)

Pellet groups are usually associated with white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits or snowshoe hare. Yet the small space behind the pails precluded a pit-stop from a deer, and the pellets were encased in a black membrane, unlike the fibrous texture displayed by Lagomorphs (that’s fancy talk for hares and rabbits).

A quick reference to our nature library found us flipping through the pages of Olaus Murie’s A Field Guide to Animal Tracks (part of the Peterson field guide series). An initial check with deer pellets proved a likely suspect, but a few pages over could be found a great description of porcupine poo: “Porcupine droppings are quite variable, and looked at carelessly could be mistaken for deer.” Whew, so glad I did not use the careless approach to identification.

One of the clinching clues was that not all the pellets were separate from each other; a few were joined by a grassy membrane between them. And yes, one must look close to determine this trait. Don’t ask.

It has been a while since a porky has been found on our farm; even the wintertime tracks were left by an individual just passing through.

A thorough search of the rest of the car port with a bright flashlight revealed nothing more. (We have many flashlights at our place, some of them have dead batteries, a few have weak batteries and one actually works, except for the switch, which you have to hold in the on position.)

So now we know that somewhere out there is a young porcupine, probably setting up a home base in an old hollow maple tree. Or not, as they will travel several kilometres in the summer months. Not having need of a warm den they will just walk around, eating young trees and succulent vegetation.

Porcupines do not have to hurry along. They amble. Due to their formidable defence mechanism (30,000 sharp quills), there are few other creatures out there that can do harm to a porcupine. Fishers (close cousin to a wolverine) often dine on young porcupine but about the only other mammal to eat porcine are cougars, a big cat that appears in our neck of the woods only very rarely (and then usually an escaped domesticated animal).

Those quills are quite extraordinary in their structure and function. That sharp tip is actually a succession of overlapping barbs, and once imbedded into flesh each contraction of the victim’s muscle pulls the quill deeper inside; some claim up to an inch a day. Which means a slow and agonizing death for anything that found itself on the swinging tail end of a porky.

If you have a dog that runs the forest off-leash, be prepared to pay the price of a hefty vet bill to have quills removed. You can do this yourself, but really, it takes a trained professional with the right size of equipment to reach those small quills inside of Rover’s mouth.

Porcupines are a native species, which means they arrived in our region on their own and in their own good time. Trees had to establish themselves on the old glacial footprint before porcupines could actually stay for an extended visit from the Carolinian southlands.

As these animals ate only vegetation, were slow moving and easy to kill with a bonk on the head, the Original peoples found them to be quite edible. And the tradition of using all the parts from a kill led to the quills being incorporated into their art expressions as well.

Enjoy the great outdoors and remember to look up ... there may well be a porcupine up a tree, just waiting for you to pause below. Then it’s “look out below!”