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Originally published in Castine Patriot, September 4, 2014
Outside Insights

Sleeping porcupines

A tree makes a good bed for porcupines.

Photo by Peter Cooperdock Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Peter Cooperdock

With a slow, lonely walk, the animal waddles along the edge of the road. Seen from time to time, they appear to have little concern for their surroundings. And who can blame them, with their bristling backs shielding them from almost anything to which they might be vulnerable. Seldom seen with others of their kind, the North American Porcupine is a solitary life lived.

One afternoon, we ventured into our back yard to enjoy the end of a rainy day as the clouds cleared and the ground dried. Looking skyward, the mist evaporated and a light breeze blew the remnants of moisture away. A few hints of the setting sun shown on the tree tops when my companion noticed a large dark object in one of our elm trees.

As with most residents of Castine, the elms above our yard are a signature for our life here. Their flowing majesty emphasizes the exuberance of a beautiful day on the coast. Instinctively, they allow the eye to gracefully move upwards to take in the sky above. In this case, to a large, dark, and suddenly moving object.

Striding across the yard, head bent in an uncomfortable attempt to see through the branches, this writer moves towards that darkness. “It’s a porcupine,” I exclaim, “and there’s another one.” I watch a larger brown animal walk outward on a limb that appears too small to hold its weight.

The dark one is half the other’s size and is calmly shedding the elm of its leaves. The larger one begins the process as well. Perhaps a mother and child, these are bad habits being taught on this elm tree. Lots of other choices exist in the trees of the area, but these porcupines have a taste for these elms.

The North American Porcupine is the largest of 29 species of porcupines worldwide. They are the only porcupine in North America. They are our second largest rodent after the beaver. As herbivores, they generally eat twigs and leaves but can also eat clover, roots, and other plants. They are supposed to be partial to the aspens, but these ones apparently haven’t read the manual.

These elms went through a porcupine attack a few years ago. The Castine tree warden came out and confirmed the source of damage. After the suggestion of shooting them elicited silence, his recommendation of wrapping tin around the trunk proved successful for many years. Until now.

They looked so content up there, munching away, littering the ground below with partially gnawed branches. The sun glistens off those protective quills that allow them to lead their lives without fear. Most potential predators, as has many a dog, receive a face full of these sharp implements, which are not thrown but do easily detach. The largest successful predator appears to be cars as numerous porcupine carcasses have been seen on the highways.

A few adjustments to the protective sheathing on the elms, along with removal of a few adjacent shrubs, appear to have thwarted the appetite of these porcupines for these elms. No carcasses were noted along the roads nearby, so hopefully these creatures are enjoying nutrition from less conflicting sources.