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Wild WNY / The porcupines are coming!

Western New York homeowners might need to get ready for a new wildlife visitor

A North American porcupine is armed with as many as 30,000 quills.


This past summer, while birdwatching in Golden Hill State Park in Somerset, New York, Chris Hollister and I came across a very large porcupine perched quietly, perhaps twenty feet up, in a maple tree. I suspect that this animal weighed over thirty pounds, which is in the upper range for porcupines. My previous experience suggests that this was an unusual encounter. It may indicate that these interesting animals are moving into new areas and may even appear one day in your yard. Those who feel they already have enough trouble with squirrels ruining bird feeders, raccoons tipping over garbage cans, and deer eating entire gardens now have the real possibility of porcupines destroying lawn furniture and maybe even munching on house siding.


According to wildlife biologists, an adult porcupine’s defining characteristic—its quills—are white modified hairs; mixed in with black hairs, giving them a grizzled appearance. Those quills—30,000 of them on a single porkie—lie flat until the animal is bothered, then they stand on end and become more apparent. Normally well anchored in the animal’s skin, the quills loosen when in defensive mode. They are not thrown, as the old wives’ tale suggests, but come out easily, especially when the animal thrashes its tail.


Those quills are this slow-moving animal’s major defense against predators. Scales near the tips play the same role as fishhooks. Any animal stabbed with one not only has a serious problem removing it, but the quill end, if broken off, will migrate within the victim’s body, working its way in as the animal moves. An Adirondack forest ranger once had a quill become embedded in his foot when he stepped on it. He thought he had completely removed the quill from his heel, but, months later, what he thought was a boil above his knee was discovered to contain the tiny quill. He was fortunate it had not migrated into a major organ.


Porcupines offer no physical threat to us. They will simply pay no attention to humans unless they’re bothered. Like beavers, they are rightly known as bark-eaters. Although they usually survive through winter on this meager diet, they lose weight and, as soon as spring does arrive, they turn their attention to the budding plant food, emerging leaf buds in particular, for which they spend much time in trees feeding. There is a problem with this diet, however; it contains little of the animal’s required sodium.


It is the combination of these two aspects of their diet—their wood-eating and their need for salt—that can cause problems with people. Anything wooden that humans touch and leave residues of salty sweat on, for example, the arm of a lawn chair or a camp outhouse seat, is like candy to a porcupine. Paint and resins covering wood often also contain sodium and attract this animal’s gnawing. Especially vulnerable is plywood.


If you or your pet is speared by a quill, here’s a suggestion from the experts: It is a myth that if you cut the end off, it will be easier to remove. This may actually hinder removal. The best way to remove these quills is to put a few spoonfuls of vinegar on them where they enter the skin, wait five to ten minutes and then repeat. A few minutes after this second application, pour mineral oil over the quills. The vinegar removes the lime from the quills and they soften. The mineral oil helps the quills to pop out more easily.


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