The North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

Thorn Pig, Quill Pig, or North American Porcupine, what ever you refer to them as, our North American Porcupine can be recognized as the second largest rodent (after the North American beaver) and as one of the prickliest.

They are most famous for their quills and can have over 30,000 of these modified hairs. Quills are hollow, with a pointed tip and have some tiny barbs that help it embed into their predator’s skin. A big concern for people coming across our prickly friends are the quills being thrown at them, but contrary to what most believe, porcupines are not able to “throw” their quills.

Now that you had a big sigh of relief that quills will not be flying at you the next time you come across a porcupine, it is still important to keep dogs on a leash, so they don’t think a porcupine is a new prickly friend and end up getting a swat from our quill friends and you a trip to the local vet. So, let’s discover what makes the quills so important for porcupines.

Porcupines’ eyesight is poor however they have an excellent sense of smell, hearing. They are very slow-moving animals, so quills are an important defence for them. When attacked, they will lower their head (as most quills here are more hair like and not used for defense) and swing their tail at their attacker.  The quills will swell and expand once in the skin of the attacker which makes them even harder to extract. They can also be described of having a very distinct odour to them. Like the smell of body odour.

Porcupines do call Cataraqui Conservation’s conservation areas home, and can occasionally be seen walking along the ground, or sleeping up in a tree. They are found in a wide range of habitats including coniferous, mixed, and deciduous forests. Porcupines do not hibernate during the winter, but will remain close to their dens, feeding during drier weather throughout both day and night. In the summer, they become more nocturnal, and will feed further from the den.

Piles of poop right outside our front entrance to our homes may not sound appealing to you or me, but for our Porcupine, its not an uncommon sight. Sometimes they will poop so much out their front entrance that they must push the poop out of the way to exit their den.

Porcupines reach sexual maturity around 1.5 years of age. Mating season in Ontario is in late fall, where males will follow females around and serenade them with grunts and hums. Females are pregnant for 30 weeks and babies, usually a single porcupette, are born between March and May. Baby porcupines are born with soft quills, which harden a few hours after birth. These babies will nurse for up to four months but are able to start eating green vegetation within a few weeks of birth. Often the sounds of a mother porcupine communicating to their young can be described as a newborn baby crying at night.

Porcupines are herbivores. They will eat buds, twigs, and bark. During spring and summer, they enjoy catkins and elder leaves, poplar, and willow. They will also eat currents, roses, dandelion, clovers, and grasses. During the colder months, porcupines survive on the inner bark of trees. They prefer beech, white pine, and hemlock.

Porcupines crave salt, especially during the winter months, and will often be seen chewing on the glue of hydro poles along the side of highways. Which can prove hazardous for our slow-moving porcupines when they are near the roads trying to get to the salt that is laid out on our roads during the winter times.

Common predators of porcupines include lynx, coyote, red fox, bear, and great horned owls.

So next time you come across our prickly neighbours watch and see what they are up to by keeping your distance and discover for yourself what they might be up too. Are they up a tree? Or walking to a new one?