I have spent many pleasant hours in the company of Fretful the porcupine. For the past 18 months he has genially welcomed me into his world. During this time the only sounds he has made are the humming noises he makes when he is arriving for a visit. I have heard porcupines make many other sounds. Indeed, their curses would make a pirate blush. When I heard such porcupine imprecations coming from my shed one morning last week I could scarcely believe they came from Fretful. Yet there he was, perched miserably on a bale of shavings. His quills were disheveled, filled with debris and matted with what might have been blood.
It is challenging to examine a porcupine in the best of times. On that morning, he raged like a miniature grizzly bear, rearing and squawking at any who approached. A friend and I managed to herd him into a crate. Once in a warm quiet place, Fretful slept much of the day, rousing to dispense a tongue lashing to anyone who ventured near.
The following day, the vet who helps me with wildlife rehabilitation cases, Dr. Svec, was able to treat him. Mysteriously, the only injury aside from a number of quills embedded in his tail, was an abscess on his back, a wound that was already draining. Since abscesses do not appear and drain overnight, this wound did not explain his appearance or behavior. Dr Svec treated the area and removed the quills. While Fretful snoozed, his muzzle in the anesthesia mask, we examined him for other injuries.
Once the sleepy porcupine was installed in his convalescent facility, I set out to gather evidence to explain his state. A trail of quills and other signs, plus my observations of Fretful and other neighbors in the days preceding the event, make some variation of the following scenario likely.
On the night of the incident, Fretful headed up the path he takes to return to his den. He stopped to nap and digest for a bit somewhere near the house, as he often does. When at last he roused himself, he trundled denward his paws making no impression on the frozen snowpack. Was he moving slowly because of pain from the abscess?
As he passed beneath the hemlock tree that marked the descent into the woods, he registered the presence of another porcupine, the male who dens in the ledges just up the hill to the east. In past winters, this younger porcupine might have remained silent as Fretful passed beneath his tree, but he now senses his old rival’s infirmity and hurls a curse. Fretful rises on his hind legs, and samples the air. Does he imagine he is the same strong animal of his youth? He answers the challenge and climbs into the hemlock. This time, his rival advances, quills flared, barking aggressively. Fretful, weakened by time, pain, and the long, cold winter, is unable to intimidate his foe, and finds himself backed out toward the end of a branch. The pattern of quills scattered beneath the tree do not suggest he fell, but there are enough to indicate that the two clashed several times. Fretful retained his perch, screeching and squawking, until at last the other porcupine backed off and resumed feeding.
When Fretful regained the trunk and retreated to the ground, the other porcupine decided to prove his dominance unequivocally. Fretful backtracked toward my shed, the great porcupine from the east in pursuit. The trail of quills indicated that Fretful stood his ground in three more places along the way. Once in the shed, Fretful made for the summit of the bale of shavings, falling hard and losing many more quills before at last securing the high ground. There I found him in the morning, in the agitated state described.
Fretful is not a model patient. He refuses to eat well and makes it plain that he is eager to leave. His language is appalling. Once I have done all I can to help him, I will open his door and he will head back into his world.
I predict that Fretful will relinquish the portion of his territory that overlaps with that of Big East-- I may not see him on my doorstep again. Finding him in the woods will be more difficult too, since this is the season when porcupines abandon their dens and begin to travel and forage more widely. I know that once he goes I may not know how he fares.
Uldis Roze, who has studied porcupines in the Catskills for decades, documented the life of one porcupine for 20 years. She died in the winter from the combination of infirmities that mount with age. Very few wild animals, enmeshed in the hazardous matrix of nature, live a full life span. While I am sad to think that my old friend may be nearing his final days, I am impressed that he has managed to live so long and well in these rocky hills. In our time together, I know that he has spent many pleasant summer evenings grazing in meadows; has kept the company of at least one amiable female during the autumn; has spent glorious October days eating beechnuts on a knoll; and has endured defeat in battle. How rich must be the full measure of his days.
Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec,org.