BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Porcupines: A familiar denizen of the timber
Before I begin, I want to thank each and every one of you for taking time out of your busy day to read my “wildlife weekly.” Over the years it has been a great privilege to spend a couple hours each week to write about a topic, observation or experience that I hope you’ll enjoy.
Sometimes I have to remind myself as I sit writing in the privacy of my den that I really am speaking to all of you and not just at a blank template on my computer screen. I’m humbled by this honor and am deeply grateful for your readership and support. Your letters, emails and
phone calls; your comments when I bump into you on the street; and the knowledge of your appreciation and respect of all that is wild in the great outdoors has always been and will always
be something very special and dear to me.
Thank you, all of you, so much.
I’ve spent most of the latter half of September, the entire second half of October, and a week in early-to-mid November enjoying myself in the woods, mountains and prairies. And I’ll soon be spending even more time in the woods and water over the course of the next few months.
Indeed, these are the places of my retreat (as I know you know) and the places where I escape to… where I find solace and energy, and, quite literally, material for this space.
Take for instance a recent walk of mine on a wooded two-track trail after sunset. There wasn’t a moon, just stars above twinkling and guiding my way out of the forest. As my boots crunched and squeaked on the cold snow and frozen earth, I heard the oddest of sounds permeating the
dark timber. I stopped to listen, not moving a muscle.
Surely, I thought whatever it is I’ll soon figure it out. Yet as I stood in the darkness and listened to the almost bird-like cry, a wail of sorts -- high-pitched, nasally, whiny and loud -- the source of the very strange vocalization did not, despite my search, reveal itself to me physically or mentally. It jarred no memory or experience of mine as I went through a cerebral checklist of
sorts: Owl? Check. Fox? Check. Fisher? Check. Bobcat? Check. Deer fawn? Check.
What could it be?
It eventually dawned on me but not until the next morning while driving to work. I had, as it turned out, heard the sound before. Not just once, but two or three other times in my life. And I knew it at the time -- that I had heard the sound before -- yet I couldn’t pinpoint just exactly
when, where, under what circumstances, and of course what.
The unusual, albeit unlikely sound came from none other than a very common and familiar denizen of the timber: the second largest rodent in Minnesota (and an arboreal one at that), the porcupine -- that quilled and docile creature that wants nothing more than to be left alone to do as he or she may, which is usually just hanging out in their favorite canopy confines to feed on tender twigs, nutritious leaves and tender bark.
For your listening and viewing pleasure, here’s a link to an interesting YouTube video where you can see and hear for yourself the vocal antics of a porcupine. These sounds are exactly what I heard deep in the dark woods a few nights ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9H3z94ZuJ0
Porcupines are fascinating Minnesota mammals. Often misunderstood and, in my opinion, disrespected and underappreciated by many people. Porcupines are as worthy, interesting, and intelligent a creature as they come. Almost sloth-like, there isn’t much that worries or hurries the roly-poly porcupine.
Reputed to make very fine pets, I was surprised to learn in the book “Mammals of Minnesota” written by my BSU professor Evan Hazard that he once raised a porcupine. The joyful animal was a part of Dr. Hazard’s family and the BSU student body for nine years until his devoted and playful pet porcupine died of old age. Myself a farm boy who once enjoyed raising a couple of raccoons, a chipmunk and a gray squirrel, I’ve often wondered about other wild animals, especially porcupines. Their slow moving, yet deliberate, inquisitive and unassuming behaviors are admirable attributes.
Worldwide there are 29 species of porcupine, but only one species exists here in North America. Adorned with an armament of quills that, contrary to popular myth cannot be “thrown” as if projectiles flying through the air, are sharp and painful to any antagonist unfortunate enough to receive a face-full of the unwelcome barbs.
Although abundant, and a rodent at that, porcupines don’t follow the normal life history of most other rodents in the sense that porcupines are not very reproductive when compared to some other rodents. A female porcupine’s gestation period is more than 200 days and she normally raises just one pup a year, rarely, but sometimes, two pups. The precocious pup is born highly developed and able to follow mother around soon after birth.
Subsisting on a pure vegetarian diet, porcupines enjoy eating twigs, bark of certain trees, leaves, roots, stems, berries and even skunk cabbage. If you’ve ever watched a porcupine foraging, especially on leaves for example, their feeding habits are methodical and very aware as they seek out and gingerly pluck leaves from delicate limbs with nimble fingers and their small mouths.
I could, and probably should, write much more about this charming forest fellow. And I will at another time. Until then, thank you again and I’ll see you soon as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.