Jim and Sue have been enjoying a restful week with us, lazy days by the fireplace and meandering walks in the woods. They have found a lot of animal tracks -- and one they had some trouble identifying. From their description, we are crediting it to one of our resident porcupines. They do leave an odd track behind.
Less than graceful. That would pretty much describe the waddling, slothlike gait of a porcupine. Between that heavy tail dragging along behind, and the short lets, they are not designed to bound about like deer. That's just as well. Their short squat bodies, well grounded, allow them to scuffle through the often dense underbrush where they like to live. They might seem a bit dim witted, since their primary defence is to stop and huddle up, all quills toward the 'bad guys', but they are actually quite smart. Better at solving mazes than almost any other animal.
Their Latin name, Erethizon dorsatum, means “The animal with an irritating back”. With up to thirty-thousand barbed quills; the porcupine is a sort of walking spiny urchin of self defense. These defensive quills are what set the porcupine apart from most other animals in the forest and allow the animal to be quite fearless of predators.
Since their winter food supply of the inner bark of trees, buds and twigs, is pretty low in sodium, they crave salt. This has lead to incidents of porcupines chewing up anything people have handled, because we leave a trace of salt from our bodies behind. Axe handles, even outhouse seats have fallen to their relentless chewing. We had a very determined porcupine who tried to chew his way through one of the huge support beams of the old barn. And we know of one incidence where one chewed through the brake line of a car, for the road salt that coated it.Wheee!
Those thirty thousand quills are interesting things. They detach easily from the porcupine, so simply brushing against one will be sufficient. The animal doesn't 'throw' the quills, however. You have to make contact. In essence the quill is a long hair, solid at both ends and hollow in the middle. The working end comes equipped with a barb, like a tiny fish-hook, that catches and prevents easy removal. So, what happens to an animal that gets swatted by these quills? Well, if it's domestic, we usually take it off to the vet, so the quills can be removed under a sedative, because they can be hard to remove. Animals in the wild don't have this medical plan -- the quills will actually work their way through the animal, eventually falling out on the far side. If they don't work through a vital organ, the animal usually suffers no long-lasting damage. Since porcupines do quill themselves (falling out of a tree, for instance), they don't want to get infection from their own quills, which are coated with an antibiotic substance that prevents most of these injuries from becoming infected. That works very much to the porky's advantage -- one encounter with porcupine quills is usually enough to train a predator to stay away for life. If the predator died from infection after being hit by a few quills, the porky would have to keep "training" new predators, a rather tiresome task.
When they traipse through the snow, with their funny elongated pigeon-toed feet, that very helpful tail drags along behind them, often obliterating their tracks and leaving an odd looking furrow.
Had these tracks been closer to the lake, and smoother, we'd have opted for the local otters, who vary between running and sliding -- otter tracks involve clear paw prints, however, because they just can't slide the whole way! Irrepresible and with a well honed sense of fun, otters love to slide and play. This picture shows where three otters have gone scampering and sliding along -- much sleeker than the waddling furrow plowed by Mr. Porcupick.