My first encounter with a porcupine was roadside, somewhere between Belleville and Kingston, Ontario. My best friend and I had spent a week dog-sitting two huskies in nearby Napanee and were heading to the Via Rail station to catch the train home to Brantford, Ontario. Marta, who we had dog-sat for, spotted the roadkill and immediately pulled over for us to inspect it. As an artist, she was always slamming on the brakes to watch a hawk lift from a field with a fresh kill or slowing down to take in the silent wonder of deer slipping into a forest.
“A porcupine!” I immediately wanted a souvenir quill. So did Marta. We squatted around the bloated body, pulled a few and marvelled at the size of the “quill pig,” as they are affectionately called. Marta would probably sketch the quills later that night in her studio. I would add my treasured find to my collection of feathers, bird skulls, beach glass and arrowheads.
Potato Chips and Porcupines
When Jen and I arrived at Toronto’s Union Station, we had half an hour to grab some snacks before the last leg home. I had a heavy pack on my back and lazily asked Jen if she could grab my wallet from the top. “It’s in the zippered section,” I said.
I heard a strange sound behind me and turned to see Jen bent in half, her face tomato red.
She could barely right herself, but when she did, I could see my souvenir porcupine quill jabbed deep in her finger. Jen, an anxious sort to begin with, was already crying about rabies. It was quite the commotion and so out of place. We were in downtown Toronto and Jen had a porcupine quill lodged in her finger. A quill!
Quite magically, a Hostess chip delivery guy came to Jen’s rescue. He examined her finger and smirked a little at the oddity of it all. She didn’t even have time to wince or wail—the Hostess chip dude had pulled the quill out in one swift pluck. Then Jen cried, this time more out of relief, but still with very real rabies concerns. Mr. Hostess reassured her that she was rabies-free, and I paid for the dill pickle and ketchup chips and navigated us back to the train platform.
Update: Jen did not have rabies, but I’m sure she thinks of me and porcupines every time she opens a bag of Hostess potato chips. Also, I have no idea where that quill went, but the memory remains sharply embedded in my mind.
A Little Porcupine 101
I have only seen one living porcupine, and barely. I recognized its lumpy shape moving (slowly) through the tall grass on the edge of the woods near our home. When we both noticed each other, there was a quick exit and scramble toward the nearest tree, where the porcupine crashed and crawled its way up to the tip top in no time. This is their preferred place to be, much like a sloth, and they are rather fond of the view from 20 metres (65 feet) high. Porcupines are clumsy and have stumpy legs (and probably low self-esteem). While their dens can be found in natural rock caves, more often they are found in cozy tree hollows in every province except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.
The porcupine’s only successful predator is the fisher. This stealth observer has learned that an attack from behind is futile. Instead, fishers wickedly go for the porcupine’s face. Over-trapping decimated the fisher population in Ontario to such a worrying number that the provincial government reintroduced the fisher in several regions to re-establish a balance in the 1950s. The fishers had kept the porcupine numbers in check, but when the fishers were scarce, porcupines had a heyday with free-range tree eating, damaging forests in a staggering pattern.
Old Wives’ Tale
Maybe it was an image borrowed from cartoons or old wives, but despite popular belief, porcupines do not shoot or throw their quills. Yes, their quills do stand on end when confronted, but the porcupine’s greatest defence is its tail. A swat from the back end releases hundreds of quills on contact. The hollow quills (modified hairs) have hundreds of tiny, overlapping barbs. The quills swell and burn deeper into a predator’s flesh, moving 1 mm (3/64 inches) deeper every hour with each muscle contraction. Luckily, porcupines have a lot of ammunition on hand. With over 30,000 quills measuring up to 10 cm (4 inches) long, being slow and clumsy isn’t a total setback. Ask any whimpering, once-curious dog with a face full of quills. For the porcupine, the lost quills are replaced in 10 days to 6 months.
Epicurean Herbivores: Pass the Salt Shaker and Canoe Paddle
Porcupines enjoy a buffet-style, seasonally themed diet. They prefer the buds of sugar maples and aspens, beech leaves, water lilies, fall mushrooms, acorns, raspberry canes, and a little inner bark and twigs for good measure (pine, birch, fir). I’m stuck on the raspberry canes. Imagine eating those wicked barbs!
Any cottager or any visitor to a national park in Western Canada will tell you that porcupines have an insatiable salt craving. In Banff, Alberta, they will snack on your car tires in the winter! Road salt unfortunately lures the innocent porcupine to the roads, which explains the high roadkill stats for the species. They also have a thing for canoe paddles, outhouses and axe handles. And they go gaga for traces of human sweat.
A more natural fix for the porcupine is found in water lilies. The lilies have higher sodium levels than most plants and are worth the swim for the land-loving quill pig.
Hinterland Who’s Who
The porcupine is mostly nocturnal and solitary, often denning solo in the winter, though it doesn’t fully hibernate. The average litter, born between March and May, consists of a single porcupette, who is ready to go! Within hours of birth, the efficient porcupette can climb a tree and its sharp barbless quills harden. It weans quickly (7 to 10 days) and moves out by the fall. Stubborn and independent only-child syndrome?
Porcupines migrated from South America long ago, when continents merged. Their sacred history is told in First Nations quillwork and integrated into moccasins, mats and art.
Their high-pitched cry can be heard for 0.4 km (1/4 mile), especially during rut season. Next to the beaver, the porcupine is Canada’s second-largest rodent, weighing in at 10 to 30 pounds. And its lifespan is similar: 10 to 30 years.
Also, I think “porcupette” is my new favourite word.
Jules Torti’s work has been published in The Vancouver Sun, The Globe & Mail, travelife, Canadian Running and Coast Mountain Culture. With experiences as a canoe outtripper, outdoor educator, colouring book illustrator and freelancer, she is thrilled to be able to curate, write and read about the very best things in life.