I suspect that many readers of this column have never seen a live porcupine outside of a zoo. Although reference books include all of Western New York in their range, this species is almost completely extirpated from urban and suburban areas here, and they don't inhabit the open country of the Lake Plains either.
Drive through the Southern Tier or through the mountains of eastern New York, however, and you'll see many dead porcupines lying along roadside shoulders. The spines of these awkward, largely nocturnal animals do not protect them against their most serious predator, us in our automobiles.
Warning! If you stop to investigate a porcupine, be careful of those quills. They are sharp and barbed. If one of them penetrates the skin and breaks off, you can have serious problems. Muscle action moves the tip through the body at the rate of about an inch a day, and it could even reach your heart. An Adirondack Park ranger once showed me an entrance scar where he had stepped on a quill and an exit scar where it had finally worked its way out above his kneecap.
(Note: To remove a quill, first cut off the opposite end to reduce air pressure in the hollow tube.)
I have had several experiences with porcupines, all while hiking alone. One of those episodes occurred while I was climbing Slide Mountain in the Catskills.
I had paused to rest part way up a steep pitch when from below me came a soft tootling sound. I thought another hiker was approaching, but the tooter turned out to be a porcupine. It waddled up the path to within about 5 feet of me before it noticed my presence. Undeterred, it simply paused briefly to look me over, made a slight detour around where I sat and continued up the trail, still tootling merrily. That night, I heard the same sound around the lean-to where I camped. Fortunately, my pack was safely hung from a nearby tree.
Porcupines are very interesting animals. Those distinctive quills are modified hairs that stiffen within an hour of the animal's birth. Although their other enemies -- fishers, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and martins -- kill them by flipping them over and attacking their unprotected belly, they too may die from the battle. The porcupine's defense is to turn its back, elevate its quills and swing its tail, but, contrary to popular belief, the quills cannot be thrown.
Awkward on the ground, these quill pigs -- for that is what their name represents -- are quite at home in trees. Their feet and claws are well adapted to climbing, and their winter food is the inner bark of trees. They often girdle the tree and kill it in the process of feeding, but woodlot damage is generally slight. A recent estimate in the Adirondacks was 35 cents per acre.
Unfortunately, porcupines also love salt, and they chew on items such as chairs and canoe paddles that are salt-coated from human sweat. For this reason, many woodland cottagers have little affection for these beasts.
This is a good time of year to look for porcupines, for they don't hibernate, and they remain inactive during only the most severe storms. Although most are nocturnal, staying in dens during the day, some reside full time in trees. Conifers are their favorites, but they may also be seen feeding in deciduous trees, where they are especially easy to see.
If you cross-country ski in the Southern Tier, keep an eye out for one of these gentle herbivores.