Porcupines in the Park
A relationship between a porcupine and a balloon can only end in disaster.Anthony T. Hincks
Do you know what one of the main causes of death for North American porcupines is? You just might need to read on to find the answer to this and some other porci-trivia! It turns out that they are quite fascinating rodents, really. It takes seeing one to actually believe that these elusive critters really exist. I have seen the impact that one had on our family dog. The dog clearly came off second best! In my nearly half-century of life I’ve had maybe one encounter with the species. That all changed recently.
Spring finally showed signs of arriving in Calgary in early March, after one of our coldest winters on record. Up until now there had been little reason to be outdoors for pleasure. That finally changed this past weekend. We seized the opportunity and went for a Sunday afternoon stroll in nearby Nose Hill Park. We persuaded the two girls who were staying with us for the week to join us for the walk, dangling the proverbial carrot of hope that we might see some deer that are relatively common in the Park but which they’d never seen.
It wasn’t long before our two pre-teen walking companions started complaining that there were no deer to be seen and they would prefer to return home. Christa and I, on the other hand, were only too thrilled to be able to be outdoors in the later afternoon sun and above-zero temperatures! So, we pressed on while the girls endured, joking, laughing a lot – as they do – telling stories and trying to make the most of what felt to them like a rather disappointing outing. As we neared the end of our hour-long walk we happened upon what appeared to be an oversized fur ball in some scrub adjacent to the snow-covered path. With shrieks of excitement, mixed with a healthy dose of caution, our little foursome congregated near the foraging thorn pig – a literal translation for porcupine – who seemed to be blissfully unconcerned about our near consternation at its discovery.
Since our Sunday sighting I’ve learnt that the New World porcupines we encounter in North America are slightly different to their Old World counterparts found in Africa, Asia and Europe. In the Americas they’re slightly smaller in size.
The North American porcupine can generate a strong odour to ward off potential predators. The odour, not too different from but stronger than human body odour, is not as offensive as the skunk.
It is North America’s largest rodent, second only to the beaver.
They do not hibernate in the winter so may be seen year-round.
The creatures are slow moving and near-sighted, which explains their almost sloth-like actions that we observed when feeding.
They are moderately less nocturnal than their Old World cousins and so may be seen during the day, more often than not up in trees where they rest or feed on stems, berries and other vegetation. Yes, these prickly, pig-faced, almost bunny-like rodents have disproportionately large claws that make them excellent tree-climbers. But sadly, they’ve not evolved the same capability for descending trees. This makes them susceptible to falling from great heights, which gives rise to the unconfirmed statistic that, in Alberta, this is reported as one of the key causes for porcupine deaths. Falling out of trees! Should the quill-coated rodent survive its grapple with gravity, they are the only native North American mammal with antibiotics in their skin that protects them against infection when pierced by their own quills following such a fall. Thinking back to Neil Diamond’s famous tune, I wonder whether porcupines do, in fact, make good pie? According to some cultures, they are hunted as a food source!
It turns out that porcupines are quite common around Alberta and are regarded as a nuisance in urban settings. They chew on shrubs, trees and any wood in our back yards. You may want to keep an eye out on the integrity of your deck supports!
Off-leash dogs can hardly help themselves from dashing towards a porcupine out of sheer curiosity, only to be unexpectedly swatted in the face by their quill-laden tail that usually leaves numerous spikes embedded in your cute canine’s nose. Contact your local municipality for advice on how to deal with a problematic porcupine.
You may also want to read more and comment about our Coyote sightings at Nose Hill Park here.
Sadly, our two pre-teen walking partners, who were still fixated on seeing deer during our afternoon outing, returned home without fully appreciating the cool encounter we’d just enjoyed with our unassuming porcupine. It was still so sweet to hear them pray before bedtime that “Colby-the-Porcupine” wouldn’t die falling out of a tree but would still live a long life in Nose Hill Park! How often don’t we overlook the often small, rare encounters in life in pursuit of the bigger, more familiar ones?