A fretful summer

Saturday July 13, 2013

I wasn’t sure I’d find Fretful or any of the other porcupines I had observed over the winter once they abandoned their den sites. On June 1, while exploring an area where a neighbor had reported a porcupine sighting, Fretful and I found each other.

After poking around in one place for a while, I had resumed walking when I heard a twig snap about 10 feet away and spotted a porcupine heading in the direction I had just come from.

"Fretful?" I asked. He pivoted and clambered over the brush toward me, moaning eagerly. I think it quite likely that I would not have seen him that day had he not detected my proximity and initiated his own search.

My backpack, with my lunch and some apples (just in case), had been abandoned several hundred yards away. Fretful followed on my heels as I set off to retrieve it. Since the day was unpleasantly warm, and because it was noon (the middle of sleep time for nocturnal porcupines), Fretful soon became less eager, finally stopping on top of a log, tucking his chin to his chest and going to sleep.

That day commenced my summer season of porcupine watching. I made frequent visits, often after dark, and seldom managed to find him before he found me and alerted me to his location with his moans.

Have I described porcupine moans? Each phrase is a series of five or six hums--mmmm Mmmmmm mm MMMMMMM! mmm mmm -- the loudest of which sound like humming in a kazoo would sound, if it were possible to hum in a kazoo.

Those were rainy times, and Fretful liked being wet about as much as any terrestrial mammal. To rid himself of water, he would stand tall on his hind legs, raise his front paws for balance, and shake himself vigorously, his quills rising and falling and swishing from side to side like a dancer’s multi-layered skirts, producing a soft rattling sound and expelling a satisfying spray of water.

This feat was aided by his tail, a remarkable appendage. Porcupines use their muscular tails as a fifth limb. When Fretful backs down a tree, he uses his tail as well as his feet to feel his way down, and it serves as effective prop to support his weight while he climbs.

When feeding on the ground, he sits right back on his tail, the base of which supports him like the third leg on a stool. He will sit quite comfortably in this position, elbows almost resting on his knees, for the 10 to 15 minutes it takes him to finish an apple.

Fretful remained in that small section of woods for almost three weeks. During those days he fed almost exclusively on the leaves of a few select ash trees and one small poplar. I used to imagine summer as a smorgasbord for porcupines, as it is for other herbivores. Even in summer, I have learned, porcupines select the very few plants that will yield the highest nutritional rewards.

Uldis Roze, who has studied porcupines for many years in the Catskills, found that his porcupines switched the tree species they fed upon throughout the season as plant chemicals levels fluctuated. His porcupines began spring dining on sugar maple buds, switching to ash and beech leaves with bud break. Ash and beech, in turn, became unpalatable by mid-June. By then, Catskill porcupines began feeding on basswood, a species absent from Fretful’s forest.

On June 18, Fretful likewise abandoned his ash grove and moved to the area below my house where pasture and brushy growth in a logged area provided his high summer fare, mostly milkweed and raspberry leaves.

Apples, Roze notes, are relished by porcupines in all seasons, and because Fretful’s foraging range now includes my backyard, he finds it very easy to stroll up the hill to my doorstep whenever it occurs to him that an apple might be just the thing.

And here’s why you should not try this at home: last week, neighbors called to let me know that Fretful was on their porch looking in their screen door. My litmus test for whether or not it is acceptable to win the trust of an animal is whether they will then extend that trust to all humans, and, if so, will they be likely to encounter humans who do not merit trust. Fretful clearly fails the first half of the test.

In my defense, when I rolled Fretful that first apple, I had no idea that a porcupine would so readily discard all misgivings about the human race. He is, if anything, more interested in new people than in his familiars. Fortunately, all of the humans within Fretful’s range enjoy wildlife, know about Fretful, and will not be surprised or alarmed by a visit from a curious quill pig, and for this reason, I cautiously continue my porcupine study.

If some hot summer day you look up from your corn on the cob and see a hopeful porcupine peering in your screen door, it’s probably my fault.

Fretful has allowed me to learn how porcupines manage the trials and savor the riches of each season. In the trials category, this summer has brought an abundance of rain, mosquitoes (those mighty porcupine claws are great scratching tools), and heat. On July 4, Fretful slept through the heat of the day in the canopy of the apple tree where I first met him in 10 months ago. 90-degrees Fahrenheit must feel warm indeed when wearing a thick coat of dark quills. When I approached the tree, I could see that the dangling foot high in the tree was indeed attached to a wilted porcupine. He opened his eyes lazily when he heard me below, but he did not stir, not until six o’clock when the temperature became pleasant, and it occurred to him that an apple, cold from the refrigerator, would be just the thing.

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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