Top News

Gary Shaw: Porcupines, one of the Big Lands more unusual characters

Walk on the Wild Side
Walk on the Wild Side - SaltWire Network

LABRADOR WEST, N.L.

The North American porcupine, also known as the Canadian porcupine or common porcupine is a large rodent, with the beaver being the only rodent in North America that is larger than the porcupine.As those among us who spend any amount of time in the outdoors, there is little doubt that we have had an encounter with one of our resident Porcupine’s.

These guys took the long ride a very long time ago to be here with us. Their ancestors rafted their way from Africa to Brazil over 30 million years ago. They then migrated to North America after the Isthmus of Panama rose, three million years ago. It must have been quite a stroll for these cumbersome and short-legged creatures to make their way to Labrador.

Porcupines are usually dark brown and in Labrador they can be seen to be almost black, with some white highlights sprinkled over their backs. Their bodies have a short stocky build with a small face, short legs and thick quill filled tail.

The porcupine is the only North American animal that has natural antibiotics in its skin. These antibiotics are there to prevent any infection that may result from a fall from a tree, that find their quills stuck in the ground. They fall more often that you would think because of the temptation of the tender buds on the outer branches of the tree that can’t support their weight as they move further out on the branches.

A porcupine — more than meets the eye.
A porcupine — more than meets the eye.

The thing that is a distinguishing factor on the porcupine is the coat of quills that it has. A full grown adult can have 30,000 quills that cover its entire body, other than its underbelly, face and feet. These quills are modified hairs that are formed into a sharp, barbed, and hollow spine. Although the primary use is for protection from predators, they do provide some insulation during the cold weather.

When the porcupine feels threatened, they contract muscles near their skin, which will cause the quills to stand up and outward on their body. They do not throw their quills but they are much easier to detach in this position and when they swing their tail at their attackers.

In the summer months they eat twigs, roots, stems and berries with no vegetation off limits. During the winter months, they feed primarily on coniferous needles and tree bark.

When they need to defend themselves they first emit a strong odour that they have when they are agitated. They will then display their quills and make a clicking sound with their teeth.

If their predator continues its attack they will turn around and use their tail full of quills as a defensive tool. 

Although these mechanisms usually work, the last line of defense for the porcupine is to climb a tree. Wolves, coyotes and bears will seek them out for food, but will not soon forget an encounter with the porcupines quills.

Porcupines are not hibernators. During the summer, they rest in the trees, and in winter they remain close to the dens they have made.

Breeding occurs in the fall and they are solitary animals other than this time. The pregnancy lasts 202 days and they give birth to a single baby each year. Although their quills will harden soon after birth, they rely solely on their mother during the first two weeks of their lives and continue to nurse for four months while learning to feed on small and tender shrubs.

We certainly have them among us in the “Big Land” and although they don’t appear to be much of a threat to us, they can certainly do some damage to the plywood on our cabins. Salt is used in the manufacturing process of plywood, which is the big draw for them.

Porcupines are edible and for some folks are a great treat. They are easy to harvest and provide a good meal if you are so inclined.

At the end of the day, they are a regular part of our ecosystem and as long as we keep them away from our cabins, we could easily be stuck with a much worse neighbour.

Recent Stories