HAVE A POINT TO MAKE
by Whit Gibbons
August 5, 2003
animals I have written about before, porcupines are near the top of my
list of animals with character and admirable qualities. They don't pick
fights, and they aren't bullies. But they are not pushovers either. Porcupines
are usually the victors, as long as they stay away from highways. Porcupines
are slow- moving mammals. After all, what's the rush? Even if a predator
overtakes you, it will soon find it should have tried to eat something
I have an
envelope full of quills I got from a live porcupine by tapping it with
a wool coat. Porcupines do not sling quills through the air like darts
but instead slap enemies with their tails. The quills they leave in the
muzzle of a nosy dog or hungry coyote send a lasting message. They will
treat a coat the same way, leaving several dozen quills that can be plucked
live in the western and northern United States and far into Canada. North
America has its own species of porcupine, as do the other continents,
except Australia and Antarctica. Porcupines have few natural enemies and,
as with most other animals these days, humans pose their greatest threat.
Porcupines have little to fear from animals such as foxes or raccoons,
especially after aiming a few quills toward a would-be predator's nose.
have been reported to accept a few quills to get a porcupine meal. But
the big cats are rare in most areas, so their impact is minimal. The porcupine's
most serious predator is an animal known as a fisher, a close relative
of weasels and ferrets. However, like many fur-bearers today, fishers
have been exterminated in many areas. Where fishers are rare or absent,
porcupines are often common.
fishers are quick and agile creatures that can successfully kill porcupines
because of their speed and tactics. Porcupines discourage most predators
by constantly turning and presenting their backside to an attacker. A
porcupine's tail is a dangerous weapon. But the fisher moves fast, circling
its prey and making quick jabs at the porcupine's face, which has no quills.
A fisher usually wins the battle against a porcupine caught in the open,
sort of like a mongoose versus a cobra.
quills harden on baby porcupines within minutes after birth. On the day
they are born they begin climbing trees and feeding on vegetation, wearing
a needle-like coat of armor. The porcupine's quill is unusual in being
coated with a greasy antibiotic substance. Quills that penetrate the skin
of an animal can cause severe physical damage. But infection is seldom
a problem because of the antibiotic properties.
porcupines carry a weapon that causes temporary grief for an attacker
but does not cause infection? Probably because the animal most commonly
stuck by porcupine quills is the porcupine itself. These rodents, which
can weigh up to ten pounds, frequently fall out of trees, breaking bones
and sticking themselves with their own quills. In a study to examine healed
fractures in the skeletons of wild porcupines, more than one-third of
the skeletons showed evidence of broken bones. The hazard for porcupines,
which enjoy a diet of leaves, fruits, and bark, comes from spending time
at the end of small, fragile branches in the tops of trees. Plummeting
to the ground is apparently a common event.
many animals living in a human-dominated world, the porcupine's primary
problems begin when their natural behavior conflicts with people's interests.
Two major complaints from those who live in porcupine territory are that
they eat plywood and chew electrical wiring on automobiles. Humans are
critical of such behavior, but the explanation for the behavior is simple.
Porcupines have a liking for sodium in their diet.
materials used to make plywood are high in salt content. Porcupines chew
the wood to consume the sodium. Electrical wiring on the underside of
northern vehicles has high sodium levels from being coated with highway
salt during winter snow removal. Salty wires, highly desirable to a porcupine
on a high-sodium diet, can take a beating from the strong teeth.
I would be less admiring of porcupines if my vehicle or outbuildings were
subject to their depredations. But I don't think so.
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