Pronounced: Order: Rodentia
Kingdom: Animalia Family: Erethizontidae
Phylum: Chordata Genus: Erethizon
Class: Mammalia Species: Dorsatum


North American Porcupines are cute, but not cuddly. They’re found in most areas of northwestern United States and most of Canada, south to northern Mexico, and in a variety of habitats. There is no immediate concern that their numbers are decreasing – they’re one of the most adaptable animals around.


Porcupines love to climb – trees keep them safe from their predators, most of whom stay on the ground. They are very agile, for the second largest rodent in North America (only the beaver is bigger). They have strong, gripping claws on their fingers and toes. Even their tail quills help them stay balanced – they can jab their quills into a branch to help them hold on. Since they are herbivorous, they often choose trees that supply them with a meal in addition to protection from predators and the elements.


Mostly brown to black, porcupines also have white banding against a black background on their quills. It may not look like much in daylight, but porcupines are nocturnal. To their predators, this sharp contrast of white against the darkness of night warns them that this is one creature not to mess with.


Female porcupines are territorial against other females and males against other males, but the home ranges of females and males overlap. When young females are old enough, they will move far away from their mothers, while young males will set up territories near their mothers. Mothers have only one baby at a time and it stays with her until it is 5 months old. But for the first 6 weeks of its life, it sleeps alone, hidden on the ground during the day while its mother sleeps in a nearby tree, ready to protect it if she has to. At night she will feed her child. After 6 weeks the baby will begin to follow the mother at night as she searches for food.


Porcupines spend most of their time alone. They sometimes share a winter den with several others or forage in the winter with a group of up to 20 individuals. They communicate through sounds, such as high pitched whining and teeth chattering. They also display their white banding when on alert, and males often fight quill against quill for mates and territory.


Porcupines may have sharp quills, but their first response to danger is to climb a tree. If that fails, they show the 30,000 quills on their dorsal sides. They don’t use them just yet, if they can help it – quills are energy-intensive to grow and they won’t waste them! They start by showing the white against black banding in the hope that the predator understands this won’t be easy and back away. Next, they chatter their teeth. If that not enough, they will raise their quills as high as they can and eject a nasty odor. Lastly, if they must, they stick their quills into their attacker and back away quickly. Porcupine quills work their way further into the flesh as the victim moves, so they are very difficult to remove.


However, some predators have come up with strategies to deal with the Porcupine’s defense. Fishers (medium-sized, weasel-like mammals) attack Porcupines from the front, where they nip away at the animal until they can turn it over and kill it from underneath. Other animals, such as coyotes and wolves may decide the pain is worth the reward. Even Great-Horned Owls are knows to catch a Porcupine sometimes without injury.


Porcupines were a food source for Indigenous North Americans and provided them with quills for jewellery and decorations. Although they can also be a nuisance – they crave salt and often chew on wood or housing structures, they can stunt the growth of trees, and they can adapt to a life within easy human reach – we should remember that we are lucky our growth has not negatively affected this adorable (but not cuddly) species.

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