A fretful winter

Saturday March 2, 2013

If you believe porcupines to be curmudgeonly, single-minded and a bit dim, you have not met Fretful.

Over the course of three months last fall, Fretful visited my backyard and demonstrated a keen interest in many subjects, or at least many objects, and an eagerness for companionship. His visits ceased in late November, the time when porcupines retire to their winter quarters. I hoped to locate Fretful's hideout to continue my education. Few mammals are easier to study than porcupines in winter, for they spend most of their time in their dens, coming out for a part of each night to feed in nearby hemlock trees.

In my search for Fretful, I have located 15 porcupines within two kilometers of my home. Most of them have chosen dens in rocky places. One of the most dramatic is a small cave located above vertical drop of 30 feet. The entrance is hidden from below by a hemlock tree gnarled by generations of porcupines feeding in its crown. A juvenile porcupine, porcupine #6, moved into this den at the end of January, and the first time I saw her (his?) little porcupine face, the name Mimi sprang to my mind and has refused to dislodge itself.

The first couple of times I encountered Mimi, I had the typical view of a denned porcupine, which is to say just of her well-fortified backside. On my third visit I left apples and wandered off for a few minutes to look at the trees where she had been feeding. I returned for a quick look and found her advancing on the apples, already growing bold. I felt little surprise, therefore, when she did not turn away from me the next time I visited. She sat in the back of her lair atop a tiered glacier that had formed during the freeze-thaw weather of the preceding days.

All pleasure I took in Mimi's presumed bestowal of trust vanished the next time I climbed to her eyrie; where last I saw porcupine I now saw a hank of fur and quills frozen into the ice; she hadn't turned her back before because she couldn't -- she was frozen to the ice. Two days later I returned and found her in her den again, this time closer to the entrance and facing the rear. She looked all right, but I couldn't be sure. I took a long stick and nudged her tail. She tried to scrabble away, but again quills and fur were anchored in the ice.

As I considered my options for providing assistance, Mimi pivoted around so she was broadside to me. Her eyelids lowered as if resignation. I knew from the fresh tracks outside her den that she had been stuck for only a few hours this time, but I do not know how long she had been trapped in the ice before. I carefully dug at the ice beneath her with a metal scraper and soon freed her.

While Mimi rested, I gathered hemlock twigs to cover the ice in her den. I would need to reach behind her to arrange the boughs. I know how fast porcupines can lash their tails, so it was with some trepidation that I proceeded. She did not move except to hold her tail to one side to keep it out of my way.

I have been checking her frequently since then, bringing apples and acorns to build up her energy reserves. The hemlock twigs worked well and she did not get stuck again. On Feb. 15, she moved north to a rock outcropping already inhabited by two porcupines. Her new den is a cavern beneath boulders. Evidence suggests that at least one of her neighbors has strong opinions about Mimi's arrival. The evening after she moved in, I found a couple of places where a porcupine had sprayed a spectacular stream of urine that extended five or six feet from the nearest tracks. Male porcupines spray urine onto their beloved during courtship, but this is the first time I have seen urine being broadcast to send a message outside of the mating season.

When I peered into Mimi's new digs and informed her that apples and acorns awaited, I was greeted by a burst of petulant complaint. Porcupines are in the same league as pirates where profanity is concerned (Listen to Teddy Bear talking porcupine on YouTube). My pique at her ingratitude vanished when I realized that she was not treating me like a predator, but like another porcupine challenging her residency status. I saluted her pluck.

I first located porcupine #10 on a frigid night awash in moonlight. He had set up housekeeping under the roots of a fallen tree. I could see his backside inside the small cavity, and as I unpacked some acorns he lowered his quills and shuffled around in his den. On subsequent visits, this porcupine was aloft and had no interest in coming down from his treetop.

A week ago when I stopped outside the den and began to unpack apples and acorns, the porcupine peeked out. When the entire beast emerged I noted that he had considerably more long fur than Fretful had on our last meeting, but he was the right size, had the same quill coloration and arrangement, and he sure did know how to handle an apple, deftly peeling a section before taking a bite. When he finished his apple, I held out a handful of acorns. He reached out his nose to sniff them, and then sitting up, supported my paw with the bottom of his own and drew it his mouth so he could pick up the choice acorn in his teeth. Fretful!

I've reached my word limit and I haven't had a chance to tell you about Fluffy, Smaug and the things I have learned from the many porcupines in my orbit. I guess you know what will be in this space next month.

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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