A Fretful Halloween

Saturday November 3, 2012

Every Halloween I hope to welcome a hoard of little ghouls. This year the first arrived on all fours wearing a rustling coat of spears. This trick or treater has shown up in the same costume every night for the past month. In that time he has eaten roughly 120 apples and 450 acorns. These treats are usually at hand in the mudroom, but the other night the acorns were spread to dry beneath my woodstove.

"I’ll be right back, Fretful," I said, but he plowed in behind me, settled down by the stove, and ate.

I had resolved that I would follow Fretful out into the woods that night, so I packed the things I would need. Fretful ate. I relaxed on the couch with some wine and cheese Š read "War and Peace" Š still my guest ate. Two hours later I persuaded him to follow me back out the door.

Like everyone who has met Fretful, I struggle against the urge to make physical contact. He is so appealing, especially when he stands and reaches his paws up as if begging to be carried. He is, however, a porcupine. He navigates the world with his senses of smell and touch. His long vibrissae and guard hairs give him a spatial sense of his immediate surroundings. Anything that touches him unexpectedly provokes a whoosh of raised quills.

He appears to share the urge for contact. "They’re so funny,"" he seems to think, "but what do I do with them?"

Once outside, Fretful wandered about, pausing often to inspect me, a couple of times using my arms and legs as steps to climb up and take a closer look. This naturally solitary porcupine differs surprisingly from his social cousins the beavers. They return to the water, and their important beaver activities without so much as a thank you as soon as they finish their snacks. Perhaps companionship is less of a novelty in their world.

And so I wished I could touch his fuzzy little ears, and waited. "Isn’t it time to get to your important porcupine activities?" I beseeched. He began to dig at the pocket where I put half an apple. I managed to extract the apple, and as I unwrapped it, the hefty quill pig climbed onto my lap to eat it. I relished his weight and proximity, and waited. When he finished, he placed a paw on my shoulder and reached up with the other to touch my hat. He then climbed down, and, curiosity and appetite sated, headed for the woods. Within 15 minutes I lost track of him in the shadows and tangle of a spruce thicket.

Despite giving me the slip, Fretful has provided other learning opportunities. On the two nights before Hurricane Sandy was to arrive, Fretful did not. As I worried, I also thought of the changes likely to occur in porcupine behavior this time of year. During the growing season, porcupines wander large home ranges and sleep in the open. In the winter, their territories shrink to include just a few den sites and feeding trees. Could Fretful have headed out to claim a den site? Was he driven to do so by the impending storm?

On the day Hurricane Sandy raged to our south, I dared not go to work. Instead, I decided to go look for Fretful den sites. Though I could hear wind roaring at high altitude, only a light breeze drifted through the mist-cloaked hillside. I found four porcupine den sites. Each was in tumble of large rocks at the base of a steep ledge. Near each den, piles of scat, fresh and ancient, marked the places where porcupines had rested. Calling softly to Fretful, I peered into every crevice that might shelter a porcupine. In just a few I found the packed soil and scat that marked frequent porcupine use. I regretted that I had failed to bring a flashlight to better explore the deeper recesses, for the freshness of sign suggested that they were occupied. In only one did I spot the phalanx of quills protecting a porcupine backside. I had become very familiar with Fretful’s rear end, and knew this one belonged to someone else. So porcupines had begun to den up! And in such dens, certified by generations of porcupines, Fretful could be dry and sheltered from drafts even if the heavens descended with the forecasted wrath.

That night, I left the outside door into the mudroom open, just in case. Š Sure enough, while enjoying the storm, the candlelight, and the company of friends, strange thumpings came from the mudroom. There, in the coils of a garden hose, sat a bewildered porcupette.

Like most baby porcupines, this one sported a prodigious quantity of long hair that swept up from her head and spine in a way that would make a Goth punk green with envy. Her worried eyes gazed at the looming strangers. We crept away, leaving her with an apple, a few acorns, some candlelight, and the rains of Sandy sweeping down outside the door. Within a minute, she was nibbling the apple. When it dropped noisily to the floor and rolled away, she turned and hustled into the wild wet night.

Did the porcupette find her way to my mudroom following the scent of Fretful, the scent of acorns, or both? If porcupines sense impending foul weather and find appropriate shelter, it must be a sense poorly developed in the young. As weak support in favor of the theory, however, the night after the storm, Fretful returned.

Though frustrated in my Halloween attempt to follow him into his own world, Fretful has brought much that is porcupine into mine. Eventually I hope to follow him to his den area, and to learn more about the charming stranger who came in from the storm. I imagine a good deal of waiting will be involved. Got any good books to recommend?

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.


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