This post is in reply to a special request from my mom. She was looking through my online Porcupine gallery and suggested that I should write something about them. As it happens, this is a very good time of the year to be thinking about Porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) as we’ll soon be seeing them perched atop trees wherever we go hiking. They’re very fond of the freshly budding branches of many kinds of trees, so are freqeuntly found clinging to the highest branches of tall trees as they nip off tender branchlets.

Most of the time, if you find a Porcupine in a tree, it will look more like a furry ball than an animal. Often, the head is not at all visible. However, sometimes the Porcupine will be moving around, as in the above example. If you’re lucky, you may get to see it standing up on its hind legs, clawed front and rear feet curled to better grip the branches. They’re really quite beautiful little creatures when you get a chance to see them moving about, albeit rather slowly.

In late winter, you will often find Porcupine tracks in the soft snow. As you can see in the above photo (click on all photos for larger view), the tracks have quite a distinctive undulating shape.

While you may see single sets of tracks on fresh snow, in late winter, it’s not uncommon to find what I refer to as a “porcupine highway” (see left).

The tracks usually lead from the porcupine’s den to some area where it likes to feed. We found the above tracks on one of the trails at Charleston Lake Provincial Park in mid-March 2006. They led from a den in a crack between two large rocks, to an area where the porcupine had been feeding on fresh branchlet tips on trees towering above the trail. Typical signs of Porcupine feeding activity are dropped branches found below the trees, along with scat and sometimes urine from the animals that have been feeding up above. When we’re out walking along country roads in early spring, we often find branchlets that look as though they they’ve been neatly snipped off at an angle. That’s usually the work of porcupines.

Porcupines like to den under rock ledges such as the above. Notice how there is a lot of Porcupine scat at the entrance to the den. It’s not at all unusual to find quite a mound of these droppings around and inside the mouth of the den. The pellets are elongated and oval in shape.

As you can see from the above photo, like other members of the Rodent family, Porcupines have very large incisors suited to chewing bark, cutting off twigs, and gnawing on wood.

This is a Tamarack (Larix laricina) tree that has been chewed by a Porcupine. The animal has chewed through the outer bark to get at the nutritious cambium (inner bark) of the tree. Tamarack seems to be a favourite of the Porcupine. We’ve sometimes found small trees almost entirely stripped of bark. In fact, here’s another view of the same tree showing how it has been debarked from bottom to top.

My family have a bit of a history of spending time out in the woods at their cottages. Just about everyone seems to have a story about Porcupines chewing up something made of wood or leather — things like porch railings, or handles off of tools — anything that would have been held in the hand. The theory is that they are attracted to salt residue on these objects.

For more information on Porcupines, check out this excellent page on the Canadian Wildlife Services Hinterland Who’s Who website.

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18 Responses to “porcupines”

  1. Mark Says:

    It seems that you have a nice variety of wildlife. As I have mentioned about our little plot, the area around us is so altered from its natural state that we are pretty poor in that respect. Deer and coyotes are about it.

  2. Celeste Says:

    HI! How big are yoru porkies? They have one or two at the Oregon High Desert Museum, and I was surprised at how big they are, about the size of a blue heeler, a small sheep, a pygmy goat…That’s a real nice set of pictures, and I especialy like the swervy tracks. Cool skull!

  3. robin andrea Says:

    What a fascinating post, bev. I’ve only seen a porcupine once, and that was over 30 years ago in a very remote part of the coastal range of California. I was really taken by how sweet-looking a porcupine’s face is. We haven’t seen any sign of them here, but a quick google search says they do live in the northwest. One more thing to keep our eyes open for. That’s quite a shot of the den. Is there a porcupine in there, or am I imagining that?

  4. Tussock Mirth Says:

    That is so COOL! What a great set of pictures.

    Picture #4 looks like the famous “Migrating Under The Snow River Otters.”

  5. NatureWoman Says:

    Great info – I’ll have to look for porcupines on my hikes.

  6. Duncan Says:

    Another great post Bev, top stuff.

  7. Am Says:

    Very much enjoyed the photos and commentary on porcupines. Especially like the porcupine track pattern and the amazing face of the porcupine gazing at the camera. I recall seeing at least one porcupine in Humboldt County in California. I love visiting your site.

  8. burning silo Says:

    Mark – We have fairly good habitat for a lot of creatures on our land. When we came here about 30 years ago, the land couldn’t support much wildlife, but that has changed a lot. It takes time though… especially when, as you say, things have been greatly altered from their natural state.

    Celeste – A large adult porcupine looks fairly big if you happen to run into one along a trail. However a lot of that size is actually just quills. I checked a couple of different sources and it looks like most agree on the adult weight being somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds. The skull that I photographed was actually quite small – perhaps about 2 inches wide by 4 or so inches long, or perhaps a little larger. I like their tracks too… something very artistic about them.

    robin – Thanks! I too checked to see if porcupines seem to be in your range and it seems that they should be. I can’t say I’ve seen them while in the west, and haven’t noticed their characteristic chewing, but then, I don’t think I was in a good stand of Hemlock — which is what I would normally associate with Porcupine. If you know of any Hemlock stands, they might be a good place to look for signs of Porcupine activity. The chew marks are a real give-away of their presence. I think they have very gentle faces, and in fact, they seem very docile and non-confrontational. If you ever meet one on a trail, it will attempt to move off as soon as it takes note of you. I don’t think there was a porcupine in that den, although it does look sort of dark at the back, doesn’t it?!

    Tussock Mirth – Thanks! Glad you liked this set of pictures!! (-:

    NatureWoman – This is a great time of the year to watch for porcupine, so keep on the lookout for snipped branches from trees and debarking of trees.

    Duncan – Thanks very much, Duncan!

    Am – That’s interesting about seeing a porcupine in Humboldt county. I was just through there in October and it seems like the kind of habitat that porcupines would like. They’re such quiet little creatures, and sit so high in trees sometimes, that I think they go unnoticed — which is probably just as well for them! Glad you enjoyed this post.

  9. Marcia Bonta Says:

    Your photos are terrific, especially the first one. Saw my first one of the season high in a tree as I was snowshoeing back along our Far Field Trail. I’ve had very close encounters with them. Last fall, while I was on my knees, peering through my hand lens at a spider, I felt a nudge on my rear. I turned around and found a porcupine. You can imagine how fast I tried to scramble to my feet. On my first attempt, I fell. Second attempt, made it. Porcupine was as confused as I was. It scampered up a nearby tree and glared down, for as long as I stared up. I wonder how many others have been nudged in the rear by a porkie?

  10. burning silo Says:

    Marcia – Thanks! That’s an excellent story about the porcupine coming right up behind you! I have a funny little porcupine story too. I used to do a lot of handspinning at one time, and occasionally set up my drum carder on the back porch of our house in summer time. I was cranking the handle of it, carding a whole fleece one morning — and the carder makes a sort of gentle scraping sound as the wire teeth brush against each other. I worked for awhile and then stopped, but the sound seemed to keep going. I thought it was odd, so I cranked the handle a few more times and stopped, and the sound continued. I sat still and listened to hear where the sound could be coming from, and realized it was coming up from under the porch – and that it was almost identical to the sound of the drum carder. I went around and looked underneath the porch from the side and discovered a porcupine walking back and forth with its quills scraping on the underside of the wooden decking. After it noticed me, it ambled off across the yard back to the trees. The only thing I can think of is that it might have been attracted by the scraping sound of the drum carder — perhaps a bit like a bull moose being attracted to the sound of bare tree branches rubbed against brush to mimic the sound of antlers clashing against brush.

  11. Peter Says:

    Picking quills out of friends feet is always an interesting experience.

    Informative post as usual, thanks.

  12. Cathy Says:

    No way! A porcupine highway – No way! (And I posted bad pictures of sparrows today:0) As soon as I get done with my incredulous comment I’m sliding my laptop over to my husband to show him the highway. I had NO idea there were places where porcupines were ubiquitous. I can’t imagine living in a area where you could, with a fair amount of certainty, anticipate seeing these cuties in the Spring. So they hibernate?

  13. burning silo Says:

    Peter – Yes, picking quills out of anyone would be an interesting experience. So far, I haven’t had the pleasure!

    Cathy – Well, it’s usually only one porcupine making the highway from multiple trips, but yes, it is usually well traveled. We see porcupine around here quite a bit – in late winter, it’s not unusual for us to see at least 2 or 3 nibbling on branchlets in treetops on a sunny day when we’re out for a hike. The one in the top couple of photos was seen here at the farm. It was an adult female and must have been nursing young as its mammary glands were visible in a couple of the photos. Porcupine don’t hibernate and are usually active to some extent throughout winter. They’re just more easily noticed in late winter when they tend to spend a lot of time up in trees nibbling on budding branchlets.

  14. Dave Says:

    Thanks for posting about my totem animal! Great photos. I’m especially fond of that last one – it looks like a woodblock print.

  15. John Says:

    Bev, you’ve outdone yourself with this post. Fascinating stuff!

  16. burning silo Says:

    Dave – Thanks, and you’re welcome. Glad to (unknowingly) oblige! You’re quite right about that last photo — the debarked tree was so interesting to look at and had a real “graphic” quality that was quite pleasing to look at.

    John – Thanks! Glad you found it of interest. I think I spend so much time wandering around outdoors, that I sometimes forget that others haven’t had a chance to study some of these creatures up close.

  17. Jim Poushinsky Says:

    Love your porky photos! The tracks in the snow don’t show the characteristic furrow made by a dragging tail, so your animal must have been strutting it’s stuff!

    I had a big porky chewing on a vertical board in my woodshed last winter. Looking out towards the chewing noise through the screen in the door, all I could see was the hands and feet curled round the edge. When I talked to him he peered around to look at me. As I explained in my most authoritarian voice that he wasn’t welcome to chew on my shed, the porky climbed down, glared at me making his own loud threatening noises, and abruptly turned about raising his tail and clicking all his quills upright with a grand flourish. The quills made a light coloured spiral pattern that drew attention to the only naked spot, his black puckered anus, right in the middle of the target. No wonder every dog I’ve owned has had quills through nose and cheeks from all directions! Mr. Attitude sauntered off making challenging grunts daring me to bite him too, but I was smarter :-) A few nights later I intercepted him as he attempted to return to the shed, and he huffed off never to be seen again.


  18. burning silo Says:

    Jim – Great story about the porcupine. They really are so amusing when they get a bit annoyed. So grumpy and yet also not at all aggressive. Just think how scary it would be if, instead of sauntering off, they became confrontational instead!