Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Notes by the Fallen Tree: The North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

You can fight a porcupine and win, but if other folks get a look at you they may think it’s a bad idea to mess with porcupines.” – Neal Knox

A couple of years ago, there was some construction work being done up the mountain from my house in Columbia. The construction was being done near a wildlife habitat and naturally many animals worked their way down the mountain to avoid the commotion.

Suddenly, there were reports about an increase in attacks on domestic dogs now that the wild inhabitants had been displaced.

They were referring, specifically, to the North American porcupine, (Erethizon dorsatum).

These accusations were misleading on a number of levels. First, porcupines are herbivores, or they only eat vegetation, so they are not a predatory animal by nature. Second, while there had been an increase in reports of domestic dogs receiving quills to the face, this is on the responsibility of the dog owner, not the porcupine. A porcupine uses its quills as self-defense from predators.

Many falsely believe that a porcupine can shoot its quills at people or animals. Instead, to get away from danger, the porcupine will lumber along slowly or shimmy itself up a tree.

When that does not work, the porcupine will make itself look as large and intimidating as it can by making its quills stand straight up. If the predator still continues to pursue the porcupine, then it will whack the predator with its tail of quills, and many will end up in the animal’s face.

Often, domestic dogs do not realize what they are dealing with and pursue a porcupine until they get that face full of quills. 

Many people are surprised to learn that porcupines are actually very common in New Jersey. Although they are primarily nocturnal, they can be seen in daylight hours from time-to-time high up in trees.

It’s a porcupine! Photo by J. Correa-Kruegel, 10/2023

However, they are probably mistaken for nests instead of an animal.

They are active year-round and as members of the rodent family, feed on the cambium layer of trees (green fleshy part under the bark), as well as branches, leaves, nuts and fruit.

They also have a taste for salt and can be found on roadsides in the spring to get to any salt left behind. This is a hazard for a porcupine because many become roadkill.

Another unfortunate hazard for porcupines is that they overestimate a branch’s ability to support their weight and fall from the trees, seriously injuring themselves or worse. 

Next time you are on a hike, take a second look at that nest in a tree – it might just be aporcupine! 

Jennifer Correa-Kruegel, Warren County Naturalist
Jennifer Correa-Kruegel, Warren County Naturalist

Jennifer has a Masters in Parks and Resource Management from Slippery Rock University. She worked as a Park Naturalist for Hunterdon County Park System from 2003-2006 and then at the NJSOC full-time from 2006 - 2020, starting as the Program Coordinator and evolving to an Environmental Educator. Jen is a New Jersey native and has lived in Warren County with her family since 2004. She is excited to be offering programs to this community she has grown to love.