My wife and I were taking a drive the other day, an errand of some type for sure. While out, she noticed some geese lounging around on a golf course. She pointed them out and commented on the large numbers in the “flock.”
I pointed out to her that a “flock” is a term generally used when referring to a group of domestic geese on the ground. Wild geese in a group, such as on the water, are correctly called a gaggle. When the geese are flying in their formation, the group is referred to as a skein or a wedge. When the formation is flying close together, or in a disorganized formation, they are called a plump.
“If you are going to be an outdoor person who enjoys watching game animals, you should learn to use the correct terminology when seeing the animals in groups,” I tried explaining to her.
She blasted me with, “Most of those terms were made up by writers, trying to be creative and entertaining to their readers. People of science pay little to no attention to those terms, but I can see why you are fascinated by them.”
Her tone was so sarcastic, that the sarcasm flittered around the cab of the truck, not unlike sheet lightning, for ten minutes afterwards. Many years of marital bliss have taught me when to keep quiet, and now was one of them.
A mammal I have always been fascinated with, from a distance of course, is the porcupine. The most common nickname for them is the quill pig, but they are sometimes just called porkies. When there is a group of porcupines, the proper term is…get this…a prickle. No, I did not make that up.
The North American porcupine is the second largest rodent on our continent, second to the beaver. There are seven recognized subspecies, 29 subspecies worldwide, and are subdivided by their ranges across North America. The porcupines in North America are usually called New World Porcupines, and those in Africa and Asia are referred to as Old World Porcupines.
Porkies are usually dark brown in color, sometimes almost black, with white highlights. They have a stocky body, short legs and a short and thick tail. They can reach 3-feet-long, not counting another foot for their tail. A full-grown adult male can reach 40 pounds, but most weigh in around 25 pounds.
As most of you know, the most identifying characteristic of a porcupine would be his quills. An adult porkie will have 30,000 quills that cover the entire body except the underbelly, face and feet.
The quills are actually modified hairs formed into hollow, barbed and very sharp spines. The quills are used primarily for self defense but also serve as insulation for the winter months.
There is an old wives tale that claims a porkie can actually throw their quills when attacked, but that is completely false. A porcupine will contract the muscles near their skin which causes the quills to stand up and out from their bodies. In this position, the quills can easily become detached from their body.
The tip of each quill has a small barb on it, allowing the quill to become lodged in the skin of his attacker. If you have ever been stuck by one, you know that those quills are very painful and difficult to remove. I have had to remove them from dogs a few times.
The porcupine actually has an antibiotic in its skin. Sometimes a porkie falls out of a tree because their general body shape can make them clumsy. Upon hitting the ground, the porkie can be stuck with his own quills. The natural antibiotic prevents him from becoming infected by his own stickers.
Western Colorado is the perfect habitat for the porcupine. They love dense forests with green vegetation, but also do well in the pinions and juniper habitat. They den up in tree branches mostly, but sometimes in a tangle of roots or a rock crevice.
Active during the night, porkies usually sleep the day away. During the night, they forage for food, usually in trees where they spend most of their time. Being nocturnal is why we seldom see them.
Porcupines are herbivores, eating wood, tree bark, stems, nuts, seeds, grass and leaves. They do not eat meat, but will occasionally chew on bones to keep their teeth sharp and clean. The eating of tree bark has caused them to become quite a nuisance in some places. Telluride often has a problem with porkies destroying trees in resident’s yards.
If those quills are not enough of a deterrent, porcupines also have a strong odor to help ward off predators. This odor is often compared to a strong human body odor, and gets stronger as the animal becomes agitated.
Wolverines, coyotes, wolves, bears, fishers, and mountain lions are all considered predators of the porcupine. The fisher is probably the only one to have much success attacking a quill pig because they are also great tree climbers and very quick and agile. In most cases, the predator becomes injured and dies because of the quills imbedding them during the attack. Sounds like a “last supper” for a predator to me.
Porkies spend most of their life in solitude. Whenever you see two together, they are probably a mated pair. They will breed in November and December and the gestation period is seven months. The female will have a single baby, called a porcupette. The quills on a newborn are very soft, generally hardening after a few days.
In the wild, most porcupines live to be 10 years old, but some have been known to reach 30. Believe it or not, porcupines are edible but rarely hunted for meat. Porcupines were an important food source for North Americans Indians, especially during the winter months. Ernest Hemingway wrote about having to eat one once. He said his father made him eat it after he killed one, to teach him a lesson that you do not waste an animal.
The quills of a porcupine are considered good luck charms in Africa. Sometimes they are used as a musical instrument. At one time, the hollow quill was used to carry gold dust. Today, fly tiers use quills for custom fishing flies and lures.
I explained to my wife that a porcupine is generally a solitary animal and rarely seen in the company of another porcupine, and she may never see a prickle in the wild. She did not answer back. Apparently, I am on the “pay no mind list” today.
Mark Rackay is a columnist for the Montrose Daily Press and avid hunter who travels across North and South America in search of adventure and serves as a Director for the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. For information about the Posse call 970-252-4033 (leave a message) or email email@example.com. For outdoors or survival related questions or comments, feel free to contact him directly at his email firstname.lastname@example.org