Not long ago, while enjoying a stroll in the woods, I noticed a dark blob in the canopy of a small birch tree. At first I thought it was a gray squirrel nest, but something wasn't quite right about it, so I approached it for a closer look.
I soon discovered what the unusual shape really was - a porcupine. The rotund, medium-sized rodent hardly paid me notice, except for a casual downward glance and a momentary stare-down. Indeed, rather than flee or hide, here was a forest dwelling, arboreal creature programmed to remain calm in the face of a human interloper.
One of my first experiences with a porcupine occurred many years ago while hunting ruffed grouse with a friend of mine. Both of us had our dogs with us; Tim's bouncy Springer spaniel, along with my bulldozer of a Chesapeake.
During one special moment of the hunt, our dogs disappeared into the thickets and had to be called back. Listening, and then calling again for the dogs, we soon heard them crashing through the brush in their haste to return to us. The first to arrive was Dutch, my Chessie.
As she neared where my friend and I stood, I saw that the brown dog's face appeared unusually white in color. Seconds later, when she reached my feet, she collapsed to the ground and began pawing at her muzzle. The poor dog had evidently bitten into a porcupine. The "white" were the tens of dozens of quills imbedded everywhere throughout her head, neck, nose and mouth.
We spent the next frantic minutes pulling out as many of the hateful quills as we could, some of which we had to leave inside her until we got back to the farm and had access to a few tools. The Springer, oddly enough, had only a lone quill at the very tip of her sensitive nose. We were able to remove it immediately.
In spite of the weaponry possessed by porcupines, the animals are really quite docile and harmless. That withstanding, porcupines are armed with more than 30,000 quills, which, when administered to an unwitting predator, can cause painful wounds and, sometimes, even death.
Contrary to what many people believe, porcupines are unable to "throw" their quills. Countless cartoons and stories portray porcupines shaking themselves vigorously while quills propel themselves from their bodies in a spray of lethal projectiles flying everywhere. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While porcupines can and do swat attackers with their thick and muscular, quill-endowed tails, and thus inflict an unhealthy dose of piercing quills into the bodies of the unfortunate, most quills sustained by victims are through their own meddling - like my dog trying to bite or kill the porcupine she encountered.
The quills themselves are interesting structures. They're actually modified, somewhat hollow, hairs that lie flat when the porcupine is in a relaxed, normal state. However, when a porcupine is frightened, it can raise these special hairs - their quills - to give themselves a much larger appearance, not to mention a near impenetrable pincushion defense.
Hardly noticeable to the naked eye, the sharp tips of quills are further enhanced by dozens of microscopic, backward-pointing barbs. Not only does this ensure that the quills delivered into the skin of an attacker remain imbedded, but that they also inflict pain when attempts are made to pull them out.
Furthermore, the action of the contracting muscles of a victim's body, coupled with the barbed quills' unique design, causes quills to work themselves deeper into the body. Once under the skin, quills often migrate to other areas. If a vital organ is the final resting stop for a nomadic quill, the arrow-like quill can potentially penetrate the organ and kill the victim.
It sounds harsh, that is, being skewered by quills, but there are few wild animals that will bother the unassuming vegetarian rodent. Its size alone is deterrent enough to most predators. Porcupines are the second largest native rodent in North America, second only to the beaver. The quill-covered, slow-moving porcupine can reach weights of more than 15 pounds and body lengths of almost three feet from nose to tail.
During the growing season, porcupines live on a wide variety of plant material, including herbaceous forest plants and a multitude of hardwood tree leaves. In the wintertime, however, is when the porcupine switches its diet to tree bark, hence the poor reputation it has with foresters and landowners.
Yet, tree girdling aside, the ubiquitous porcupine, a species of mammal that first arrived in North America from the South American tropics more than 2.5 million years ago, somehow has not succeeded in eating itself out of house and home. The forest, which has managed to sustain porcupines all this time, still persists despite the porcupine's ability to kill some trees. Nonetheless, some pine plantations have been decimated by porcupines from time to time.
The porcupine I happened upon a few weeks ago was minding its own business as it foraged contentedly on birch leaves above my head. I observed the feeding porcupine as it very deliberately, and, I might add - in fact, emphasize - intelligently, reach out and grasp with its dexterous "hands" and nimble "fingers" various leaf-filled limbs in what appeared to me as curiously thoughtful and systematic, as the animal pulled the forest salad into its hungry mouth. It was fascinating to watch.
I like porcupines. I always have. They're quiet little forest fellows that are so deserving of their rightful place in the woods as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org