Pleasantly Prickly

Written & Photographed by David Ryan, Field Forester, Willapa Bay

Earlier this month I was scouting a project that we are planning with our Willapa NWR partners when I came across this prickly fellow.  Porcupines are relatively common denizens of forests across America. Historically, many states across the nation paid bounties for these slow moving rodents.  However, this one had no qualms about walking right up to me and placing his nose on my toes to determine whatever it is that porcupines need to know about human feet.  After a few minutes’ assessment, it learned what it needed to about my feet and went back to the more important business of munching vegetation.

The common name of the porcupine is derived from the Latin porcus, pig, and spina, quill or spine;essentially meaning quill pig.  A common myth is that porcupines can “shoot” their barbed quills at potential predators. This is untrue and the quills only become problems for those intrepid and foolish enough to actually make contact with the porcupine.  The defense mechanism is so effective that porcupine have few predators.  Although bobcat, cougar, coyote, wolf, or other predator may attempt to make a meal of our rodent friend, the repercussions are severe enough that few make a second attempt.  Although some stubborn domestic canines refuse to learn the lesson the primary consistent and persistent predators are fishers and humans.

Why would states pay for exterminating these docile creatures?  Since the inner bark of trees proves to be an important food source for porcupines, especially in winter, many forest managers sought to eliminate these rodents in an effort to reduce porcupine induced tree damage.  In the early and middle 20th century, bounties were paid by the nose, ears, or feet as proof of a porcupine kill.  Depending on the area, bounties were about 25 to 75 cents per porcupine.  By the 1980’s porcupine bounties had largely ceased throughout the country.  Not for any ecological or humanitarian reason; they were deemed to be an ineffective policy since they amounted to a subsidy of activities which some people were already doing and the fee was not high enough to induce more people to hunt more porcupine.

At Ellsworth Creek Preserve, porcupines are accepted on the landscape.  And based on this encounter, I look forward to another meeting … as long as I don’t have my dog with me.