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It’s in your nature: The porcupine

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    The porcupine may have 30,000 quills protecting its body. The facial area and underbelly are the only unprotected body parts. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    When I “confronted” this porcupine raiding my apple trees and I blocked his slow escape route, he turned from me, raising his heavily quilled back toward his threat just as if a fisher or bobcat would threaten.

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    When threatened, the porcupine will tuck in its head between its forelegs, back toward the threat and then swing the short, muscular, quill-covered tail toward the predator.

Published September 21. 2019 07:43AM


Porcupines, sometimes called quill pigs, are the second largest rodent in Pennsylvania, in fact in North America as well. A male porcupine could weigh 12 to nearly 20 pounds.

As in all rodents, their incisors (front teeth) grow throughout their lives. In fact, all rodents must chew to wear down the teeth. Once seldom seen except in Pennsylvania’s biggest forested north-central counties, porcupines appear to be spreading their ranges. I now often see road-killed porcupines on Carbon County roads and highways, and I recently saw a dead specimen on a Lehigh County road as well.

Their preference is a forested area with rocky hillsides where they can den and raise the young. However, my observations indicate that almost any forested area of 40 or more acres will offer satisfactory feeding opportunities.

“Porkies” in winter feed on the inner bark of hemlock, spruces, cherry trees, maples, etc., while in the summer they will eat tree leaves, shrubs, flowers, and if they find them, apples. They are most active at dusk, at night and at dawn. They spend most of their time in the trees and could be spotted in December in a leafless tree looking like a dark basketball lodged near the tree top.

They climb up a tree headfirst and climb back down rear end first. Porcupines have a particular craving for salt, and in “wilder areas” shed deer or elk antlers are often gnawed until none of the antler is left.

In many of Pennsylvania’s deer camp counties, porcupines can be very damaging to the hunting camps. Anything that may have traces of sweat on it gets chewed. Outhouse door handle areas and the wooden outhouse seats are often chewed. Porch railings and even wooden doors near the handles get gnawed, too.

Porcupines may live up to 10 or 12 years with few enemies. Occasionally a bobcat or coyote may successfully kill one, but these predators need to be particularly careful. A porcupine may have nearly 30,000 quills on its body. The quills are specially modified hairs, very stiff, with hundreds of minute backward pointing barbs on the ends. If the quill gets into an animal’s skin, it will continue to work deeper and deeper, causing much pain. If a predator gets quills embedded in its facial area, it will ultimately lead to that predator’s demise.

If a porcupine feels threatened, it will turn its backside toward the threat, tuck its head between its forefeet, erect its quills, and face its back and tail toward the threat. It will swing its 8-inch tail rapidly sideways, hoping to swat the face of the predator. THEY DO NOT THROW their quills. An animal must make contact with the porcupine in order to be “stuck.”

One rather successful predator is the fisher, a larger member of the weasel family, recently reintroduced by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and found in this region.

Unlike other rodents, porcupines have very few young. Only one pup is born in spring, and sometimes, a female is only bred every other year. But obviously their quill defense allows them to have little natural mortality. Automobiles seem to be their biggest threat.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Which of these is not the correct name for the organism? A. lady bird beetle, B. daddy long-legs spider, C. water spider.

Last week’s trivia: Indian pipes can be found in damp summers in forests or forest edges. Surprisingly, even though they lack chlorophyll, they are not a type of fungi. Indian pipes cannot make their own food but they utilize rootlike structures with a ground fungus to get food from tree roots.

Contact Barry Reed at



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