PORCUPINES IN THE SOUTH?
February 8, 2009
myriad animals I have been asked about, porcupines are near the top of
my list of favorites. They don't pick fights and are never bullies. But
they are not pushovers either. Porcupines are usually the victors, as
long as they stay away from highways. Porcupines are slow- moving mammals.
After all, what's the rush? Even if a predator overtakes you, it will
soon be looking elsewhere for a meal. These are some of the questions
I have been asked over the years.
Q. I know
that armadillos and coyotes were not native in the South east of the Mississippi
River only a few years ago, but now they seem to be in most southern states.
Are porcupines also invading the Southeast? Can they survive our hot summer
A. The answers
are no and yes. Porcupines occur naturally in the western and northern
United States, from Alaska to Pennsylvania and far into Canada. They have
not appeared in any of the southern states, except for mountains in Virginia,
but you are correct that armadillos and coyotes are relatively recent
migrants to many areas of the Southeast. Despite living in some of the
coldest regions on the continent, hot summer temperatures are not a show-stopper
for porcupines. Their range in the Southwest extends to California and
into Mexico. This past summer I saw three alongside roads in the very
hot deserts of New Mexico.
porcupines a terrible pest in areas where they occur?
A. As with
many animals living in a human-dominated world, porcupines earn the title
of pest as soon as they do anything that does not suit people who occupy
the same area. Two major complaints from those who live in porcupine territory
are that they eat plywood and chew electrical wiring on automobiles. The
explanation for the behavior is simple. Porcupines have a liking for sodium
in their diet. The adhesive materials used to make plywood are high in
salt content. Porcupines chew the wood to consume the sodium. Electrical
wiring on the underside of northern vehicles has high sodium levels from
being coated with highway salt during winter snow removal. Salty wires,
highly desirable to a porcupine on a high-sodium diet, can take a beating
from the strong teeth. Porcupines also eat bark and quickly become unpopular
when they eat someone's newly planted saplings.
Q. Since I have never heard of a porcupine without quills, I assume they
must grow back when they lose them. How long does it take? Also, do the
quills cause serious infection when stuck in a person's skin or a dog's
A. The protective
quills harden on baby porcupines within minutes after birth. On the day
they are born they begin climbing trees and feeding on vegetation, wearing
a needle-like coat of armor. Quills are of the same origin as the tough,
outer guard hairs on dogs and other mammals that have thick coats. The
hairs grow back when they are removed or, in the case of quills, when
they are stuck into a predator. A long quill probably takes several days
or even weeks to grow back completely. Typically porcupines have an average
of about 30,000 quills, so they always have a good supply to take care
of a pesky dog or person. The quills generally do not cause infection
because they have an antibiotic coating. The sticking itself hurts plenty,
and the tips of quills can even break off under the skin. But because
of their antibiotic properties porcupine quills create fewer problems
from infection than a wood splinter.
I have an
envelope full of quills I got from a live porcupine by tapping it with
a wool coat. Porcupines do not sling quills through the air like darts
but instead slap enemies with their tails. The quills they leave in the
muzzle of a nosy dog or hungry coyote send a lasting message. They will
treat a coat the same way, leaving several dozen quills that can be plucked
out. Perhaps I would be less admiring of porcupines if my vehicle, outbuildings,
or young trees were subject to their depredations. But I don't think so.
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