The porcupine is a large rodent, almost the size of a beaver, with a coat of sharp prickly quills that protects it from predators. At 2-to3-feet in length and weighing 20 pounds or more, an adult porky even resembles the shape of a beaver. And like the beaver, the porcupine’s orange-colored incisors never stop growing. Continual growth and constant gnawing is what keeps the length of these large curved teeth in check and chisel-sharp.
Porkies are somewhat nocturnal and inhabit wooded areas where they spend a good part of their day—indeed, even much of their lives—in trees, which is why we seldom see them. They are herbivores and feed on a variety of leaves, greens, twigs and nuts. During the winter, they eat tree bark and any girdled tree in the woods is a good indication that a porcupine is present. I’ve noticed that they have a preference for maple trees, probably because of the sweetness of the sap. And we’ve all heard the stories of porcupines gnawing on wooden axe handles because of their fondness for the salt from sweaty hands.
As Finger Lakes farmland reverts to forest, ideal porcupine habitat is on the increase. This may not be welcome news to any dog owner who has had their pet come home with a face full of quills. I’ve had to remove quills from my dogs on several occasions and it is not an easy job. It’s painful for both the dog and the owner. Sometimes veterinary assistance is needed, especially if quills are embedded between teeth or in the dog’s tongue or gums.
Contrary to popular belief, a porcupine cannot throw its quills. Direct contact with the animal must be made in order for quills to become embedded. Porcupine quills are modified hairs that are coated with keratin—the same fibrous protein that makes up feathers, hooves, claws and fingernails. Quills are barbed on the end, which is what makes removing them so difficult. And if left unattended, they may embed themselves even deeper and fester. When removing quills, use long-nosed pliers and ignore the old wives tale about cutting them in half. It only makes them more difficult to grasp and may cause a quill to break or splinter.
Even though it is an unprotected species in New York, I’ve never heard of anyone hunting porcupines for meat. Their only natural predator is the fisher, a large weasel with the capability of killing and eating porcupines. In Native American cultures, porcupine quills were used to make headdresses and decorative beadwork for clothing, knife sheathes, and arrow quivers. Indian women would gather quills by throwing a blanket over a porcupine and retrieving those quills that adhered. They were then cut into bead-sized pieces and dyed to suit.