Quill Throwing is a Myth

By Dave Hanks

One of our largest rodents is our Porcupine. The “Old Wives Tale” about throwing its quills is just that - a far flung tale. They can, however, slap you with their tail. The quills are easily detached and the result to the victim can be quite painful, as evidenced when you try to remove them from your dog’s muzzle. Quills are modified guard hairs with barbs on them. This animal has about 30,000 of them on its tail, sides, and back.

They are solitary beasts that are arboreal and nocturnal. Like all rodents, they have large incisors – theirs grow all of their lives. There are other porcupine species in the world. Besides our North American one, we are probably more aware of the European Hedgehog.

This usually quiet species is vocal during mating season. Males will fight over females at this time. After vanquishing a competitor, the male will perform a dance and then spray urine on the female’s face. Her gestation lasts 200 days, after which she will breed back immediately. She is either pregnant or lactating for most of her life. The young nurse for 2 to 3 months and reach adulthood at a year. However, it takes 1 ˝ to 2 ˝ years for them to reach sexual maturity.

In spite of the quills, Porcupines are preyed upon by Mountain Lions, Bobcats, Great Horned Owls, and especially Fishers (a large forest dwelling weasel). The scheme is to exhaust the prey until the predator can flip it over to get at its soft, unprotected belly.

When north of 60 degrees, we have often seen them along road sides. In Denali National Park, Alaska, we noticed whole sections of dead trees. What caused their deaths – hungry deer species in winter, Beaver, or Snowshoe Hares? A park ranger said they were the result of Porcupines, who had become snowbound and survived by gnawing on the trees.

We see this animal on occasion and try to get close. This seemingly slow mover can actually disappear in a hurry.

(The armor suggests keeping a reasonable distance)