Prickly situation: Porcupines rarely seen, but signs of their presence are noticeable

A few weeks ago, before a record amount of snow buried things here in our neck of the Southern Tier, I decided I’d had enough of sitting in front of a keyboard and decided to take a drive and then a walk in the woods. I wouldn’t go far, only to my friend’s farm about 10 miles from my house. It would be an easy walk, but not one without discovery.

Parking the truck, I followed a path to one of my favorite bowhunting stands. Because of the unseasonably warm weather, the ground was soft and it gave ample evidence that more than a few deer survived this past hunting season. Deer tracks were everywhere, as were their droppings. It was an encouraging sign.

Crossing a small creek, my intent was to head slightly uphill to another stand I frequently hunt to see what critters were showing up since deer season closed. As I crossed the creek, my eye caught sight of a popple tree with the bark completely stripped from several of its branches.

In high school a friend and I ran a trapline and, to find beaver, we searched small creeks for tree branches stripped of their bark. But this was different. No beaver could have stripped the bark from a tree 10 feet from the ground, and from just looking at the branches I knew immediately what animal spent time feasting on the tender bark.

There was no doubt that I was observing the work of a porcupine, a creature few people rarely encounter, at least here in the Southern Tier. I’ve encountered them before, but not often. A few years back, after an evening archery hunt, I found one slowly making its way along the ground, and because porcupines walk flat-footed and slow, I had an excellent opportunity for a close-up look at the animal.

I took a few photos, and after looking at the quills at close range, my first thought was how this creature defended itself when threatened. A porcupine can’t throw its quills as some people think, but the quills are loosely attached and can easily do a number on any animal wanting to take a bite – like the family dog.

Porkies have very poor eyesight and biologists say their hearing is most likely inferior to other forest creatures, but they do have an excellent sense of smell.

Porcupines will feed on the bark of almost any tree, including white pine, hemlock, basswood, birch, cherry and the aspen, I discovered. However, as anyone in the North Country knows, its diet isn’t just limited to forest trees. Porcupines are notorious for gnawing wooden buildings, telephone poles, canoe paddles and even car parts like tires or radiator hoses. Because they crave salt, they will seek out and gnaw anything with human perspiration on it, including the wooden handles of tools such as hammers and hoes, as well as boots and even gloves.

My wildlife reference book says a single pup is born in late spring or early summer and after it is weaned, it receives little attention from the mother. The only creature that fearlessly attacks a porkie if it encounters it is a fisher, an animal that is growing in numbers in our area.

I didn’t encounter any wild animals on my walk, not even the porcupine that gnawed the bark from the popple tree, but I did enjoy seeing the evidence left by some of them. Besides, anyway you look at it, it was better than sitting at home.

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