People seldom see one of the state’s oddest mammals, the porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). This is, in part, due to the solitary, nocturnal nature of the creature. Porcupines are concentrated mostly in the western one-fourth of the state, but are slowly spreading eastward. Porcupines are the second largest of Oklahoma’s rodents, with only the beaver being larger. They can reach weights of about forty pounds, and can be over three feet from head to tail.
A porcupine’s entire body, with the exception of the belly and legs, is covered with sharp quills. The porcupine’s quills, which are actually hardened, barbed hairs, are its primary source of protection. Porcupines cannot “throw” their quills as is popularly thought. They can, however, slap their quilled tail with lightning speed in the direction of an attacker. If a predator comes too close, it is likely to get a nose or mouth full of sharp quills that will work deeper and deeper into the flesh, causing a nasty infection and in extreme cases, possible death.
A single porcupine may have upwards of 30,000 quills, more than 100 per square inch. Native Americans once used the quills as needles, and as ornaments on clothing. They were also used in the making of Native American warriors’ breastplates.
Porcupines are amazing climbers. They have been sighted over 60 feet up in the tops of trees, particularly cottonwoods, and these animals are extremely agile. Porcupines are herbivorous, feeding on bark and twigs, and prefer to eat softwoods, such as pine, elm and poplar. These rodents love salt and will seek it out. This craving leads them to eat such things as succulent plants, saddle leather, and the occasional shovel handle.
In some areas, the porcupine’s love for salt can get it into trouble. They will eat just about anything with a salty taste, including rose bushes, lily pads, garden produce and even car tires. Porcupines have been known to eat gardening equipment, wood siding on homes and yard furniture. Even when feeding only on trees, porcupines can cause problems. They can strip so much bark off the tree that it dies. There are some products that can discourage porcupines from literally eating you out of house and home. Most of these are liquid sprays that taste terrible to the porcupine. Another option for controlling problem porcupines is trapping and relocation.
In northern climates, a natural predator of the porcupine, the fisher, is sometimes introduced into an area to control porcupine populations. Fishers are a type of weasel and are about the size of a large house cat. Other predators of the porcupine include the bobcat, and where found, the timber wolf, and wolverine. These animals are quick, and are able to flip the porcupine onto to its back in order to expose it’s soft, unprotected belly. In Oklahoma, only the bobcat, and occasionally the coyote, are natural predators of the porcupine.
Porcupines mate in the fall and give birth about 112 days later in the spring. They usually have only one offspring, called a porcupette, and twins are rare. The porcupine’s quills are soft at birth and harden within their first hour of existence. They can eat solid food in about two weeks. Unlike their stoic parents, porcupettes are quite playful.