On my first morning, I awoke to the sound of something walking around outside my tent. Opening the tent flap, I came face to face with my first javelina. It looked fiercely at me and narrowed its piggy eyes. My own eyes widened.
Gently, calmly I closed the tent flap. I zipped my sleeping bag up snugly and decided I really wasn’t ready to get up after all. I breathed deeply (what was that peculiar odor?) and focused on listening to the sounds of birds. But for 15 minutes all I could hear were the footfalls of little hooves on the rocks around my tent.
Yes, I was a little afraid of the javelina. But I read up on the beast and found out it was more interesting than scary. I learned that its official name is Collared Peccary. It resembles the domestic pig, but it is not a pig at all.
Pigs and peccaries diverged from a common ancestor almost 40 million years ago. Pigs (or swine, hogs and wild boar) evolved in the Old World. Peccaries evolved in the warmer parts of the New World, specifically Central and South America.
Peccaries differ from the hog family in a number of ways. Peccaries are slenderer and smaller by at least 30 pounds. Both peccaries and hogs have hooves, but the hind feet of peccaries only have three toes (hogs have four). Both have tusks, but the peccary’s tusks are straight, vertical and about an inch and a half long. Hog tusks can be much longer and are usually curved. Hogs have long curly tails. The peccary has only an “apology” for a tail. In fact, it looks tailless.
The most striking difference between the two families is the presence of a dorsal scent gland in peccaries. The scent gland is a nipple-like structure on the rump that exudes a distinct musky liquid. Its purpose appears to be social; the stink keeps the herd in contact with each other. But certainly it can alert other mammals in the area that there are peccaries around. It is often said that you can smell javelinas before you can see them!
There are actually three species of peccary. Two species, the White-lipped Peccary and the Chacoan Peccary, are only found in South America. However, the Collared Peccary’s range extends from Argentina to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
In South Texas, peccaries are usually called javelinas, but the origin of this name is unclear. Most likely, it comes from “jabalina” (the Spanish word for spear) which is a reference to its tusks. I think that a name that referred to its stink would have been more appropriate!
Javelinas thrive in the arid lands of the southwestern United States. Thorny brush, inhospitable cactus and dense cat-claw thickets provide both shelter and food for this animal. The javelina’s fur is coarse, bristly and grizzled. This fur camouflages the animals so well, that they seem to disappear as they enter the brush.
Prickly pear cactus abounds in South Texas. And it is the favored food of javelinas. Fifty percent of their diet is made up of prickly pear, and the cactus may provide most of their water needs as well. Javelinas also eat acorns, other nuts and forbs. Occasionally, they will root out shallow tubers and rhizomes. They never dig very deeply, however, unlike feral hogs which can plow up a field!
Javelinas are not opposed to helping themselves to food put out by humans. Nancy Lawson of Cadiz put out deer corn for her Green Jays last winter. Inevitably, a few grains fell to the ground. Soon after, she noticed she had a small herd of about five or six javelinas coming to her feeder area. And if this wasn’t exciting enough, in April the herd showed up with two tiny javelina babies!
Baby animals are always cute. So were these piglets, or piglings as javelina babies are often called. They showed up at dusk with their mom, tripping along on their tiny hooves. Sometimes they would suckle. Occasionally, the piglings would rub on the mother, presumably to acquire that “delightful” herd scent.
Javelinas typically have twins. This is a good thing since the mother only has two teats. But there are records of litters of five piglings.
Since javelina piglings are so cute, people have kept them as pets. But they usually regret it. The cute baby grows into a bristle-covered, big-headed beast.
As it stares at you with its pea-sized eyes, the javelina looks mean and menacing. Its poor eyesight requires it to use its sense of smell more than vision. It is probably only gathering an “odor picture” of you, but it looks threatening. Javelinas frequently clack their teeth together to produce a loud, disturbing sound. Jaw clacking works to scare away intruders. It works for me!
The javelina’s ferocious looks, its tooth popping and ever-present musky smell combine to make it less than a superior pet. But as a denizen of the brush country, it is a well-adapted and fascinating animal. I hope you get to see one soon!