As a wildlife rehabilitator, I have watched many different kinds of young animals play. The funniest to watch are porcupines — they erect their thousands of little spears, tuck in their noses, and lunge and spin erratically — prickly spheres with tails. Usually animal play involves littermates or other youngsters in a herd. Porcupines do not have siblings and do not live in herds; they must amuse themselves.
In one of these columns last fall, I told the story of the orphaned porcupine Burdock. He was a morose little fellow when he came to me, but I won his trust by donning a porcupine puppet. I don't think Burdock believed the puppet was a real porcupine, but it was familiar enough in shape and behavior that it became a comforting toy, and how he loved to wrestle with that puppet! I wondered though, as a participant in these matches, if wild porcupines ever have opportunities to play with each other?
When I released Burdock in the early winter, he eventually took up residence in a site of steep ledges, an area popular among local porcupines; in fact, at various points during the winter there were up to five other porcupines occupying the various rocky grottoes. I went to visit Burdock in his new digs several times a week. As spring arrived and the porcupines began spending more time relaxing in the sun outside their dens, I got to know the other five as well — three adults, a young female about the same size as Burdock, and a young male who was only a bit more than half Burdock's size. I called this one Wee.
Porcupines occupy dens only during the winter. When things begin greening up in the spring, they head out into the forest. Spring was underway when I arrived at sunset on April 19. I was surprised to find that four porcupines were still there — Dangerous Dan, Quirinus, LF, and Wee. While I enjoyed the scene and waited for Burdock, I watched Wee waddle cautiously up to each of the big porcupines. Each warned him off with a squawk or two. At last, in the gloaming, I heard a familiar humming greeting — Burdock approaching from the northeast. I shone my headlamp and saw that Wee followed on his tail. When Burdock was almost to my seat, he turned and discovered Wee. Burdock reared over him and I expected the little fellow to be rebuffed once again. To my astonishment, the rear turned into a lunge, and the two were engaged in porcupine play. Wee and Burdock romped and tumbled up and down the hillside and up and down a little hemlock tree, in just the same way that Burdock wrestled with the puppet (only Wee could nip back!). Their play lasted a quarter of an hour before I heard a few squawks of complaint, as usually happens when kids play rough. I went to check and found the two sitting amicably in the hemlock tree. Now I know I have a partial answer to the question of porcupine play — sometimes, young porcupines play when they encounter each other at winter den sites.
That was to be the last porcupine congregation of the winter, and the end of my porcupine watching season. I expect at least some of the same porcupines will show up again when our hemisphere next tilts away from the sun. Perhaps Burdock and Wee will be among them. Will they be too grown up for play? I hope to be there to find out.
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. Meet Burdock and Wee at the fretfulporcupine.blogspot.com. Patti welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.