North American porcupines specifically… Erethizon dorsatum to be even more specific.
I like porcupines. They are large and slow-moving, meaning that when you find a live one in the woods you can often get a really good look. Their defense is to turn their back, erect their spines while periodically slapping their tails, and give you dirty looks. Usually you will encounter them in a rocky den or in a tree, positions from which they will not flee. On the ground they will scurry to a place where they can present you with their spines while hiding their faces.
They have a very good reason for this strategy, two really. One is that their back and tail are densely covered in long, loosely held, barbed harpoons that will gradually work their way deeply into any flesh they encounter. Many a dog owner will unhappily tell you of traumatizing encounters their dogs have had with porcupines, often followed by either a compliment for their dog’s learning ability for avoiding porcupines from that point on, or with a disgusted expression of affection for their dog despite its incredible stupidity for not learning to avoid porcupines after the third or fourth encounter.
To actually catch and kill a porcupine with your teeth and claws is a dangerous, potentially fatal proposition. This brings us to the second reason porcupines huddle rather than run. Their primary predator in New England, and in much of northern America, is the fisher (Martes pennanti), a weasel of largish stature, by weasel standards. Contrary to what the fisher’s name suggests they are primarily forest and tree-dwelling animals and the only non-bipedal North American animal that regularly, and successfully, hunts porcupines.
Weasels are fast. They are meat eaters. They are the sports cars of the animal world; energy to burn, but you have to fill them up often with costly fuels. They do not hibernate.
Porcupines are the electric forklifts of the animals world. They are slow and they are tough. They also do not hibernate.
One of the things that amazes me about porcupines is that, despite the low quality, high volume food they eat and the virtual lack of fur under the posterior spines, they remain active all through the winter. They are large, for a rodent, just a little smaller than a modern American beaver, but they are not all that big. A porcupine has about the surface area of two basket balls and slightly less volume. When it’s -20F that’s a bad surface area to volume ratio to have, and a rock crevice, boulder cave, or hollow tree is poor shelter from the cold. They are tough creatures.
Unchecked porcupines can reach densities that make foresters tear their hair and reach for their guns. They are not gregarious animals, neither are they particularly territorial. Like many animals their willingness to tolerate others is resource dependent, and, in the absence of predators, in an area with sufficient resources such as food and denning sites they will proliferate.
This happened in New England after fishers were hunted to local extinction for their rich fur. It’s actually more complicated than that, as the spread, species composition, and variation in age of the trees in the New England Forest underwent dramatic changes as the land was converted from Native American land to simple American land. Fishers were killed and porcupine numbers skyrocketed.
In Vermont the damage to the regrowing forests was so great that fishers were reintroduced to the state in the late 50s. Vermont, like many New England states had been paying a bounty on porcupines for decades before fisher reintroduction. The bounties started off at 5 cents an ear (per pair I’d assume) and eventually reached 25 cents an ear. By the time fishers were reintroduced Vermont Fish & Wildlife reports that around $160,000 had been paid out in bounties. Think about that… that’s a lot of small change.
In any event, by the 70s fisher reintroduction was considered to be a success and porcupine numbers to be manageable, except for the odd dog owner or two.
So, why do I like porcupines? Well, they’re an animal you can track easily, get close to, and spend time next to really studying. How long can you stand next to a rabbit, trout, bear, or deer out in the wild? I’ve stood watching rabbits 20 feet away for perhaps 30 minutes, but nearly had to hold my breath while each tiny movement of mine made them twitch and prepare to bolt. Most of the time spent watching rabbits has been spent trying to be invisible and not think of them roasted over an open fire stuffed with potatoes, bacon, and onions basted with a thick rosemary – Dijon mustard – black pepper paste. Animals can tell when you are thinking of eating them, I am convinced of it.
Porcupines are probably pretty good eating, but they are so easy to catch that many native tribes had taboos about catching them for food. They were food for hard times, last resort stuff after all the animals you had to work to catch were gone. Save the easiest for last, good advice in many situations.
You can get up to petting distance of a porcupine and sneeze and it won’t go far. They’re wary, perhaps even afraid, but they have an effective defense and they know it. You will eventually go away and they can get back to eating tasty bark, twigs, hemlock needles, and basswood buds. At least, I hope porcupines think their food is tasty.
Perhaps most importantly, porcupines are part of the environment. They also live on this planet. They are part of its ecology.
This is important; they are part of how the environment (the discrete things out there) relates to itself (ecology). Relationships, as I think we can all agree are complicated, sometimes non-intuitive, and riddled with hidden depths and counter currents. When I look at a porcupine track I think of bobcats, fishers, trees, geology, land use, history, and everything those touch.
Like everything else, porcupines are a window into a larger world, if you allow them to be.