Published on February 8, 2013 by Amy
When we are lucky enough to spot most mammals, its usually as they are running away. But porcupines like to sit quietly in trees, so if they live in your area and you spot one, you’re likely to get a pretty long look. Even when porcupines are on the ground, they shuffle and waddle along—this animal doesn’t need speed. The thousands of quills it carries on its back provide plenty of protection from predators.
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The porcupine is a medium-sized rodent, related to mice and rats and beaver. An adult animal is about 50 cm long (20 inches,) not counting the tail, and weighs from 4.5 to 13 kg (10 to 28 pounds.) Long black and brown guard hairs cover its body and quills are mixed in among them. Quills are really modified hairs.
Porcupines are nocturnal, which means they are actively primarily at night. In winter they like to munch on bark and evergreen needles. In summer they wander around fields and orchards in search of warm weather snacks, such as grasses, leaves, dandelions, clover and other wildflowers. Porcupines can swim, so pond weeds, water lilies, and arrowhead are all part of the summer diet.
Porcupines enjoy munching on a variety of trees–hemlock, fir, and pine, as well as maple, beech, birch, oak, elm, cherry and willow. They also eat all kinds of woody shrubs. These animals have been known to gnaw on other wood objects, such as old boards and even houses. They are attracted by salt and may chew on any tool handle that has salt left from human sweat.
When not in trees or feeding, porcupines prefer the protection of a den. Dens can be found in rock crevices, caves, hollow logs, abandoned mines, and even under houses and barns.
Of course, the most famous characteristic of this animal are the quills. When a porcupine is threatened, it assumes a defensive posture—head and shoulders lowered, back to the threat, every quill erect, tail thrashing back and fourth. This is usually enough to scare away any would-be predator. Quills come out of the porcupine’s skin easily, but they quickly become embedded in the enemy, working their way in deeper and deeper. Not only is this painful, it can be fatal.
In spite of this prickly suit of armor, there are some animals that prey on porcupines. The fisher is the most formidable predator, but great horned owls, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and wolves will make a meal out of the porcupine if there’s an opportunity.