For the past 18 months, many of these columns have featured tales of Fretful, a wild porcupine who has been my willing guide into the world of his kind. In the most recent column I reported that Fretful was in my custody, convalescing. Evidence suggested that he had been bested in battle by another porcupine, the porcupine whose winter territory lies just to east.
When Dr. Svec examined Fretful, he found only an abscess that had burst, possibly during the altercation, and a few embedded quills in his tail. Inspection of his teeth revealed that Fretful was an elderly porcupine. At the time I wrote the column, Fretful had been in my care for a week, not eating much and complaining often. I had decided to keep him a few more days until I could follow him to monitor his health when he returned to the freedom of the forest.
On April 6, I released Fretful into a new season -- warmth, sunshine and rapidly melting snow had replaced the unremitting chill of the long winter. Fretful inspected the yard, carefully sniffing any object he encountered at nose level, and then set off to the west toward the woods. I remained a respectful distance behind him so that my presence would not distract him. Though he did not follow his usual route, he headed toward his den site and the heart of his winter territory. His movements seemed capricious -- he would climb a hill, head back down, and then climb up again, pausing along the way to sniff sticks, trees, rocks.
While porcupines have a pigeon-toed, swaying gait, their legs are quite long for a rodent, and they can move along briskly. I was pleased to see that Fretful seemed energetic but wondered how long he could keep up his pace; I knew how little he had eaten in the past week, and he had been thin even before his traumatic experience. He had lost many quills during his battle and had bald patches on his rump. The abscess, which should have healed by then, had started seeping. Still, on he strode, back and forth, up and down, over the 10 acres that surrounded his den.
I had feared that keeping Fretful confined for so long would change our relationship, that I had become the resented jailer instead of benefactor and companion, yet when our paths crossed as Fretful meandered, he greeted me with his porcupine "hello" hums, and came over to see what I was up to. He would stand up and put his paw on my leg, give me a sniff or two and then return to his rounds.
After several hours I needed to return home to feed a batch of orphan baby squirrels. While I was feeding them, my neighbor Lucia called. She and her husband, luxuriating in the arrival of spring, had been napping in the sunshine, and opened their eyes to find Fretful marching across the snow in their direction. Since they have two dogs, Nels shooed him back to the woods, while Lucia called to let me know where he was.
I returned to the woods as soon as I could but could not relocate Fretful. As dusk approached, it occurred to me that he might have been cutting through the neighbors’ yard as a shortcut to my house -- the well packed trail Fretful usually took to my house each evening passed through the woods below their house to bypass the dogs. Perhaps I would find him when I got home. I left a few apples and some acorns near his den and headed home.
Sure enough, when I arrived I heard the distinctive heavy tread of porcupine paws in the gloaming and my heart leapt. "Fretful!" I exclaimed. When I turned on a light, however, I saw a coal black porcupine, a magnificent animal radiating vigor -- Big East. Fretful suddenly seemed like a very bedraggled old porcupine indeed. Big East retreated to the shed where he had "treed" Fretful 12 days earlier. Tempting as it was to vilify the creature who had caused Fretful such distress, I knew Big East had acted in the way dictated by nature. Fretful had doubtless treated his rivals ruthlessly when he reigned in these woods.
The next afternoon I skied to the place where I had left the apples. A pile of peels and cores remained. I called, hopefully, to Fretful, and then noticed the niptwigs beneath a nearby hemlock. Sure enough, when I scanned the treetop I saw a porcupine -- Big East. This area was outside of his regular winter range. He must have picked up Fretful’s scent and tracked him there.
I now surmise that after Fretful had been defeated, Big East had traveled his rival’s territory and marked it as his own, a fact Fretful was verifying on his wandering and sniffing expedition. I hoped that Fretful had the good sense to move on once his inspection confirmed Big East’s claim. I did not find the scattering of quills that characterize porcupine conflict.
Though I have searched in the few areas I have known Fretful to inhabit, I have found no sign of him. I will not be surprised if I do not see him again. I suspect that his health had begun the downward spiral that is inevitable in all lucky enough to live long lives. Then again, the spring foods of the porcupine will soon be available, and may be a tonic for the old fellow. It may be that when the false truffles fruit I will find him in his old haunts eating fungi and ash buds. Or perhaps later in the summer I will find the telltale trails in the milkweed patch and at their terminus a fat and friendly porcupine restored to health.
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. Her book, The Beavers of Popple’s Pond, is now available at Everyone’s Books. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec,org.