The View from Heifer Hill: The fraternal order of the porcupine
It's a drippy evening, the end of March, and I have toted my laptop out to the High Scenic ledges, my current favorite office space. These ledges have been my destination since Burdock, the orphaned porcupine I raised last fall, moved here in early February. At these ledges I have made the acquaintance of six resident porcupines and have been puzzling over their strange society.
On this particular evening, the first to yawn, stretch, and lumber from his den is wild-haired Dangerous Dan. I first met Dan in early January when I tracked him to a cavernous den site just south of here while looking for the wandering Burdock. That den was to become known as The Club, for on most of my 10 subsequent visits I found two or three porcupines inside it together, usually including Burdock. Given the number of vacant dens nearby, and the supposed porcupine preference for solitude, I thought this small gathering of porcupines interesting.
When I did not find Burdock at The Club one day, I assumed he had been evicted for insubordination. I found him alone in a cave here at High Scenic and thought it served him right. How then to account for the fact that the day after I found Burdock here, Dangerous Dan moved here, too?
I have spent many hours in the company of Burdock and Dangerous Dan since then. While they often bunk in neighboring caves, I have found them snoozing together a few times, and once I saw them arriving home together from the woods. Are they friends? Then why do they also whine and squawk when they get too close to each other?
As Dan eats an acorn beside me, I hear the chattering of teeth in a small cave nearby — the sign that a porcupine is about to move — and soon the juvenile Little Fuzzy emerges. This youngster and Dan pay each other no heed, and soon LF is eating an acorn too. A third porcupine, a very small juvenile, just woke up in a nearby hemlock tree, and clambered around browsing on the needles for a bit before descending and crawling under a boulder to resume its slumbers. Dan and Little Fuzzy finish eating and are napping when I hear the eager humming of a familiar porcupine returning from the woods — Burdock. Burdock is clearly delighted to find me here, though he whines if he thinks I want his biscuit. As the gray afternoon fades to dark, a fifth porcupine waddles down from a cave high in the cliff face. This porcupine finds Dan on the pile of acorns and offers a squawk of complaint — a tremulous "Wah-AH-ah-ah-ah." The two grumble and whine, nose to nose for several minutes, until the newcomer offers a bark that startles Dan into jerking back off the acorns. The new porcupine then settles in to eat while Dan resumes napping.
According to the limited scientific literature on porcupines, when young porcupines are old enough to be on their own, females disperse while males remain on or near the home range of their mother. This means that the male porcupines in a given area are likely to be related to each other, often half and sometimes full brothers.
According the research, alliances may form among males too young to vie for dominance. Because they are likely to be related, they may benefit by sharing resources. I will never know how these particular porcupines are related, or even what sex they are (except to know that Burdock is an unrelated male), but as I sit here among these whiny, squabbling, yet strangely social creatures, I have an epiphany, you see, I grew up with three brothers! Suddenly the behavior of these porcupines seems utterly familiar.
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. Find pictures of Burdock and his pals at thefretfulporcupine.blogspot.com. Patti welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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