Each fall and spring, I notice a marked increase in the amount of porcupine roadkill in Maine. In fact, just last week I saw five dead porcupines along a 20 mile stretch of road in Washington County.
This trend is due to the fact that fall and spring are the seasons when porcupines are covering more ground than they do in summer and winter. In the spring, they are in pursuit of some fresh green food, like newly sprouted grass and dandelions after their unexciting winter diet of inner tree bark. And in the fall, they are in pursuit of a mate.
Now is a great time to reflect on these corpulent critters and their impressive role in the Maine woods. Here are three reasons why we should appreciate this misunderstood mammal.
1. Porcupines are perfectly adapted to a challenging life in the Maine woods
These chunky, slow-moving rodents are most famous for their quills, which are actually just stiff hairs with hundreds of tiny barbs at the tip. Like a barbed fish hook, porcupine quills go in easily but are a challenge to remove.
Rather than wasting vital energy by fighting or fleeing, porcupines rely on their fur for protection. When they feel threatened, their fur simply stands on end, like a dog’s fur does. Unlike other mammals, however, this reaction turns what otherwise looks like a fluffy bumbling creature into a pincushion that is perhaps nature’s finest example of passive resistance.
Porcupines try to keep their back ends pointed towards the threat, and if they are in an ideal spot, they will stick their heads into a tree hollow or other hole to protect their faces. Fishers, however, have figured them out and are especially adept at predating upon porcupines in trees where they can more easily get at their soft bellies and faces.
A common myth is that porcupines shoot their quills, but this could not be further from the truth.They actually rely on the fact that their quills fall out easily once stuck into the face or paw of a prospective predator. And, as fur tends to do, the quills grow back later. These barbed quills are such an effective adaptation for deterring predators that porcupines have no need to run quickly and simply waddle through the world feeling unperturbed.
That lack of grace they exhibit as they waddle clumsily through the world does indeed translate to the treetops, out of which, they regularly tumble. Given that they are each covered in 30,000 quills, it is no wonder that these falls often result in porcupines pricking themselves. Fortunately for porcupines, their quills have some antibiotic qualities that reduce the chance of infection when they inevitably stick themselves. This quill quality may not help your dog much, though, so search online or ask your veterinarian about ways you can train your dog to avoid porcupines—there are lots of resources out there.
Porcupines are rodents, and as such, they have impressively long and strong incisors that can grow up to twelve inches in a year. These specialized teeth help them chew through the tough, tooth-wearing outer bark of trees in order to access the more nutrient-rich, but still quite tough, inner bark. This habit gets them some much-needed food during the cold winter months when tree bark is just about the only meal available for this herbivore.
While our Maine winters are intimidating to many species, they are no match for porcupines. Instead of hibernating through the winter, they pick a comfortable burrow near a tree or two that can serve as a convenient nearby winter buffet. And in addition to their thick, insulating underfur which helps them stay warm, decomposing porcupine poop in their burrows adds an external heat source while providing nutrients to the soil underneath.
These adaptations that help porcupines avoid predators, access nutrients in hard to reach places, and stay active year-round make them an ideal Maine mammal.
2. Porcupines create habitat for other species
Don’t believe a word anyone says about porcupines being harmful to forests or wildlife. While porcupines can kill trees due to their habit of stripping them of their bark, the harm they cause to forests on average is far less than the damage that wind or disease cause. Better yet, unlike wind or ice damage, porcupines leave dead trees standing, which creates diverse habitats for the many different species that rely on nesting in cavities or finding food in dead wood, like woodpeckers, chickadees and owls. This thinning of the forest also helps ensure the longevity of other trees and understory plants that require some dappled sunlight to come through the canopy.
If you manage a forest and rely on healthy trees for your income, porcupines can understandably be a pain when they decide one of your prized trees is the daily special. However, their contributions to our forests outweigh the damages overall.
3. Porcupines are objectively cute
I know that as a person with a background in science, I am really not supposed to look at the world with a subjective lens. But I also know that some people will not be convinced to appreciate porcupines based on their adaptations and ecological services alone, so I must rely on the cute factor to win these people over.
A quick internet search for “porcupine eating pumpkins” or “porcupine noises” will reveal one of their many cute qualities: they make charming little noises when they eat. I discovered this trend while enjoying an outdoor solar shower when I lived in a cabin without running water one summer. I started hearing a blend of tiny little high-pitched grunts in the forest nearby while I was lathering up. Worried that I did not have as much privacy as I’d hoped, I froze and listened closely. I realized that the noises were coming from the treetops—much too high to be of human origin. Wrapped in a towel, I crept into the woods to discover a porcupine dining on spruce twigs at the top of the tree making all sorts of what I could only assume were “nom-nom noises.”
From their carefree waddling to their mishaps with falling out of trees, their propensity for sticking their heads in holes when threatened, and their range of childlike eating noises, I think even scientists agreed that these quill pigs were cute when they assigned porcupine babies with the adorable name of “porcupettes.”
I understand that people who rely on healthy trees for an income or who have curious dogs can grow to detest porcupines, but it is important to remember that this native species is perfectly adapted to help create the habitat that makes Maine, Maine: healthy forests filled with abundant plant, bird and animal life.
Hazel Stark is a Registered Maine Guide who lives in Washington County and is co-founder of Maine Outdoor School, L3C. She also co-produces a radio show about the Maine outdoors called The Nature of Phenology, which airs on WERU-FM at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays.