A porcupine visit in Bee County
by Karen Benson
Feb 28, 2012 | 1758 views | 2 2 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Peering down with sleepy eyes, a satisfied porcupine rests after a long day of nibbling bark and twigs. Rare in south Texas, it is not known if these animals occur here naturally or if they are unwittingly transported to Bee County by humans. Photo by Nancy Lawson.
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Is that possible? I would not have thought so a few weeks ago. The mammal books say that porcupines do not live in Bee County. The area closest to us with porcupines is the Hill Country.

But animals move around. Known ranges can change. And occasionally, there is the odd animal where he is not expected to be.

Such was the case a week ago when Nancy Lawson, of the Cadiz community in west Bee County, called me. She had a porcupine in her back yard. It had been there a while, maybe a month or so. It moved around in a tree but did not leave it.

Nancy graciously invited me to see it. It was definitely a porcupine, quills and all! But what was it doing in Bee County?

Well, eating for one thing. It had ensconced itself into a medium-sized live oak and was methodically eating the bark and twigs from the upper branches. This is typical winter behavior for a porcupine. It will quietly spend the winter months in a single tree. It is rather like hibernation done “lite.” The animal isn’t dormant, but it doesn’t move much either. It just chews off a few inches of bark every day.

The bark and twigs seem to be enough to keep the slow-moving porcupine alive during winter. It doesn’t seem like enough calories to me, but porcupines have evolved to make do. So they gnaw bark and produce a lot of “woody scat.” Scat, of course, is a biologist’s way of saying “poop”. Porcupine scat in winter is rather interesting (if you are into that kind of thing). The winter scat is pelletized. Each pellet is about an inch long, and perhaps ½ inch across. There is a groove on one side. It resembles a coffee bean but larger. The texture is like pressed sawdust. Given what the porcupine ate, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

The ground beneath Nancy’s live oak was littered with these scat pellets. The porcupine had obviously been there for several weeks. I was delighted with all the scat. It doesn’t take much to entertain a naturalist!

I queried Texas Parks and Wildlife, and surveyed some of the area’s veterinarians. Could porcupines occur in Bee County naturally?

The answers were surprising. TPWD said that the occasional porcupine does indeed occur in South Texas. There is some evidence that they move southward along the Nueces River and show up around Lake Corpus Christi. The area vets agreed that porcupines are here, but in low numbers. The vets related that at three to six years intervals they each have had to remove porcupine quills from a dog’s nose.

It is possible that these porcupines in South Texas were brought in accidentally. One suggestion is that, in dry years, ranchers have to import hay from the northern states. Porcupines get into round hay bales and, subsequently, get a free ride to Texas.

A few biologists think that porcupines crawl into crevices on combines. Then, as the combines are moved around during wheat harvests, the hitchhikers find themselves in rural South Texas.

I suppose that accidental introduction could happen. But I am pretty sure that porcupines don’t get picked up by humans and relocated on purpose. They are, well, prickly! Even the babies are born with quills (ouch!).

A porcupine is a rodent. But unlike most rodents, it is seldom taken by predators. This is because the porcupine has evolved the superb protection of sharp, barbed quills. The quills are all over the animal’s body except for its nose, paws, and underbelly. When faced with a would-be predator, it presents its spiny back and waggles its fat, spiky tail.

It is a myth that porcupines can “throw” their quills. But if a quill is loose in its socket, a wave of the tail could release it. You can see how the myth got started.

Once a quill enters soft tissue, the overlapping scales on the tip swell outward in the moist warmth of the wound. These backwards-facing, pointed scales effectively anchor the quill in the flesh. Thus they are painful to pull back out. However, there is nothing to stop the quill from migrating forward and deeper into the unfortunate victim. Muscle contractions around the embedded quill can cause it to travel. As long as it moves through just muscle, damage may be slight. But if the quill reaches a vital organ, such as the brain, the victim can die.

It is not surprising that porcupines are loners. How can porcupines cuddle up? During the breeding season, the solitary porcupines shuffle around on the ground browsing on tender spring vegetation. The porcupines are usually muttering to themselves as they amble along. A muttering porcupine is like an eccentric, absent-minded person talking to himself as he wanders around a grocery store.

Porcupines not only mutter, but also moan, groan and whine. Sometimes, they even sing in pitiful, high-pitched voices. This kind of noise usually means that a porcupine has found another of its kind and is sexually excited.

When male and female meet, it may appear at first that they are going to fight. But if the chemistry is right, soon they will be sitting up rubbing front paws or noses. Some observers have even witnessed the “love dance of the porcupines” in which the participants stand up and waddle around on their hind legs. All the while, the male sings to the female in a high falsetto until she accepts him. The rest is up to your imagination.
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February 28, 2012
Karen Benson, you are a wonderful writer. I always forward your articles to relatives in Canada who never see the birds you describe so humorously. They know porcupines but I'm sure they'll learn a bit from this article. Thanks for ...for.. being naturalist Karen Benson.

February 28, 2012
A good friend of mine did a research project on porcupines at Kickapoo State Park near Rock Springs. They are migrating this direction.