Winter Porkies

porcupine up a tree in a snowstorm

Porcupine in a snowstorm, below the Road to the Far Field

Deep winter and at last a good tracking snow had fallen. While I may puzzle over some tracks, there is no mistaking those of porcupines. They plow through the snow on their naked, flat, pigeon-toed feet like miniature bulldozers, and when the tracks freeze, deer, opossums and foxes use them as winter highways.

When we first moved to our central Pennsylvania mountaintop in 1971, seeing a porcupine was a rare occurrence, but over the last couple decades porcupine numbers on our square mile of property have proliferated. During several days in early January last winter I found abundant tracks and numerous porcupines along the trails and in a variety of trees. Tracks wandered into and out of our three-acre deer exclosure, in and around our Norway spruce grove, and along the Far Field Road. Porcupines sat high in trees beside our hollow road, on top of Sapsucker Ridge, down in Roseberry Hollow and near the top of a Norway spruce tree. The latter was snoozing as its quills whitened in the falling snow.

Without leaves on the trees I could see many debarked crown branches. On Dogwood Knoll I found tiny pieces of bark at the base of a large chestnut oak tree, a sign that a porcupine had been eating the inner bark of one of the favorite trees of some of our porcupines. They also like red oak and sugar maple. Because they prefer small branches near the tops of these trees, we rarely lose a hardwood tree to their winter gnawing.

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

But our Norway spruce grove is porcupine central in the winter. Like white spruce further north, Norway spruce is a favorite winter food for porcupines. In addition, it provides excellent protection from winter weather. Porcupines like hemlocks too, especially for protection, and they eat the needles and twigs but not the bark because it is too strong in tannins. Our hollow hemlocks used to be popular with porcupines in the deep winter, but as the hemlocks have thinned and, in some cases, died from the ravages of the hemlock wooly adelgids, porcupines, ever adaptable, have switched to other trees, most notably our Norway spruces.

Porcupine tracks led into the grove from Sapsucker Ridge and the Far Field Road. By late January numerous spruce trees bore fresh tooth marks from gnawing porcupines. Porcupines move slowly in the woods, just as I do, so they are easy for me to track. Unlike colder, northern places, where they are out mostly at night, here they are out and about both night and day. No doubt our porcupines were especially hungry last winter because the acorns, one of their favorite autumn foods, had failed for three years.

One day I surprised a porcupine sitting on the snow-covered Far Field Road. When I approached it, it stood up and slowly climbed a large sugar maple tree. Fifteen days later, in early February, I followed what may have been the same porcupine from the base of the spruce grove to the Far Field Road. The trail ended at the entrance to a hollow, fallen log below the road where a porcupine turned its back to me.

According to Uldis Roze, who has spent 24 years studying porcupines in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, porcupine fur has excellent insulating properties, which allows them to use hollow logs, trees, and rock crevices as winter dens. Usually they turn their backs to the den openings, sit with their bodies propped up by their tails, and hold their front paws against their chests. They turn their hind paws sideways so their naked foot pads don’t touch the ground. When resting in high trees, they roll up into balls and can withstand extremely cold temperatures. No wonder they are able to live as far north as northern Alaska, Quebec, and Labrador, in fact, at or beyond the tundra line.

A young porcupine in deep snow by Martin Male

A young porcupine in deep snow (photo by Martin Male, CC licence)

By mid-February, the so-called “polar vortex” was not only dropping our thermometer to as low as ten degrees below zero on some days, but it began to snow in earnest. And again I found the same porcupine tucked into the hollow log along the Far Field Road, its back white with snow.

With 18 inches of snow on the ground, I broke out my snowshoes and headed up to the spruce grove. As I broke trail around the grove, I saw fresh porcupine tracks and then spotted a porcupine at the base of a spruce tree. It started up the tree when it realized I had seen it, but it didn’t climb more than a few feet before it went around to the back of the trunk as if once out of sight, I would forget it was there. Then I noticed a circle from its body at the base of the tree as well as a pile of cylindrical, gray and/or brown, inch to an inch-and-a-half-long porcupine scat (droppings). It must have been there for some time.

I also broke trail along the Far Field Road and encountered the porcupine in the same hollow log after a night of stripping bark from the lower spruce grove trees, just as the one I saw earlier specialized in the upper part of the grove.

Every time I passed the Far Field Road hollow log for most of February, the porcupine was either in the log or plodding its way back to it. And then tragedy struck. On February 27 I found a dead porcupine behind the spruce grove, still clinging to the thin branch of a black locust tree. Apparently, it had fallen from the large spruce it was gnawing and had broken the locust branch off on its way to the ground. Probably it had died sometime after it had hit the icy snow since there were puddles of urine around it.

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, 7 months later

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, seven months later

Roze says, in his book The North American Porcupine, that porcupines risk injury and death from falling out of trees because they are relatively heavy and prefer to feed far out on branches that are often brittle. I know I’ve watched them foraging on hardwood tree branches, expecting them to fall any moment as they crawl farther and farther out on a limb that bends with their weight. Sometimes porcupines do fall, but they are usually badly hurt. For instance, one of Roze’s study animals had a series of injuries that he called “consistent with falling belly-first out of a tree.”

According to Roze, another researcher, Wendell Dodge in western Massachusetts, who autopsied 200 porcupines back in 1961, found healed leg, hip, and rib fractures, broken teeth, injured eyes and ears, hernias, and soft-tissue injuries. One even had a four-inch-long pine branch in its abdomen.

A week later, in early March, I checked on the dead porcupine and found a live one sitting next to it on the ground under the large spruce tree almost as if it was holding a late wake for it. Eventually it shuffled over to the spruce trunk, deftly climbed its mostly bark-stripped trunk, and moved far out on the limb.

I followed other porcupine tracks from the upper section of the grove over to the neighbor’s clearcut on Sapsucker Ridge. There I saw a small but old chestnut oak and a bent, larger one, both of which had debarked branches. Beneath them were bark pieces and scat littering the ground. I continued following the tracks for 20 feet to the remains of a hollow tree log left by the loggers. At its entrance was a huge pile of porcupine scat. I knelt down on the snow and peered inside the log. A porcupine was tucked into it.

Both log dens were 200 feet or so from the spruce grove. While porcupines wander much greater distances during the summer, their temporary winter dens, which they use for an average of 23 days, are usually within 300 feet of their food trees. The spruce grove porcupines followed that pattern.

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

The same porcupine appeared three days later at the base of the large spruce where the other porcupine had died and reluctantly climbed the tree when I spoke to it. It looked as if that beautiful tree had been completely girdled high up. So too had at least four other large spruces. But according to Gary Gillmore, a state forester, Norway spruces throw out new limbs if they have been topped.

By March 10 I was seeing as many as four porcupines feeding in our hollow hemlock trees, leaving nipped twigs and scat on our road. Although this was still winter food, probably they had left dens upslope early and were using hemlock habitat for shelter, meager though it was.

Near the end of March, I found only two porcupines in hardwood trees and they were eating buds. The rest seemed to have disappeared once spring arrived. But I had enjoyed my porcupine winter and the chance to learn a little about how they survive the cold months.


All photos taken on the mountain by Dave Bonta, except where indicated.

Mindful Creatures

This column was rejected by the new editor of Game News because of what he considered to be controversial content. No doubt he knows his audience. But I would like to put this column out for my web readers who may find it useful and may, like me, wonder why so many people are willing to believe that their domestic pets have minds but not wild animals who, we must admit, have much harder lives to live. Surely we have all evolved from the same beginnings, and surely that means that other mammals, like us, as well as birds and other creatures, must have minds that resemble ours, even if they are not nearly as well-developed. On the other hand, many of these species have lived longer on this earth than we have.

North American porcupine close up

Up close and personal with a porcupine

For almost half my life, treating wild creatures as thinking beings was scorned as anthropomorphizing them. Most scientists considered them to be little more than thoughtless robots. They neglected the study of animal minds because they didn’t believe that they could tell the difference between automatic, unthinking responses on the part of animals from possible behavior that showed an ability to make choices in what they do.

In school, students learned that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. If they were so bold as to ask, they were “actively discouraged, ridiculed, and treated with open hostility” as Donald R. Griffin wrote in his ground-breaking book Animal Thinking back in 1984. A renowned bat biologist, his previous book, in 1981, The Question of Animal Awareness, had been the subject of widespread derision. Still, he was able to give many examples of seemingly thoughtful wild creatures who, when they were confronted with new problems, acted creatively to solve them.

The writings of Griffin and other scientists, interested in what Griffin called cognitive ethology, have encouraged some scientists to study learning in vertebrate and invertebrate animals. They have been bolstered by the work of neurobiologists, who study the brains of animals and have made some amazing discoveries, most notably the fact that an animal that has loops between its thalamus and its forebrain is a conscious thinker. Birds and mammals, including humans, have these loops. So too do reptiles, although their loops are minimal.

New Caledonian Crow painting by John Gerrard Keulemans

Corvus moneduloides, New Caledonian Crow (John Gerrard Keulemans, 1877)

If you call someone a “bird brain,” you are paying them a compliment. Birds, especially those in the Corvid family, have brains that weigh almost as much as ours do in relation to our total body weight. Our brain weighs three pounds or 1.9% on average of our body weight. Ravens and most crow species have brains that make up 1.4% of their body weight, although the super learners in the Corvid family—New Caledonian crows—possess brains that comprise a whopping 2.7% of their body weight. These percentages compare with those of similar-sized mammals such as small monkeys. Other bird species, even smaller songbirds like chickadees, also have amazing brains.

These discoveries and many more have been recently pulled together in Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by Dr. John Marzluff and Tony Angell and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird by Dr. Tim Birkhead. Both of these books are written for a general audience but they make use of dozens of scientific papers with such titles as “Stress, Corticosterone Responses and Avian Personalities” (my italics) by J.F. Cockrem in the Journal of Ornithology and “An Intelligent Crow Beats a Lab” by A. Straub in Science.

All of this is an introduction, of sorts, to bird, mammal, and reptile behavior my husband, Bruce, our son, Dave, and I observed last June. None of it was particularly cutting-edge, but more than once I wished I had a better understanding of animals’ minds. Or, in the words of Griffin, “We like and admire other animals… because we enjoy trying to imagine what their lives are like to them…”

Dave exchanges threat displays with a porcupine

Dave communes with a porcupine (photo: Bruce Bonta)

That’s what I did wonder one June morning when a large porcupine waddled toward me on the Far Field Road. I stepped off the road and watched as it advanced. Because of its whitish quills, it looked as if it had a halo over its shoulders. Once it paused to scratch itself. When it was almost abreast of me, it turned and crossed the road, headed in my direction.

“Hello,” I said. It stopped and spread its tail to impress me with its quills. I continued talking quietly to it. Finally, it turned around and leisurely retraced its steps. Then it left the road and went into the woods where it slowly hitched its way up the largest chestnut oak tree beside the road. It flattened itself out on one of the highest branches overlooking the road directly above me, alert and watchful, until I moved on.

I’ve encountered numerous porcupines on our trails, and usually they hiss, spread their tails, and scramble up the nearest tree. But this porcupine, which looked like a grizzled old timer, didn’t seem fazed by me. Was it the animal’s age, experience, calmer temperament, or something else, I wondered, as I continued on my way.

Several nights later, Bruce was awakened by a bang on the back porch below the bedroom. He got up, grabbed his flashlight, and went downstairs to investigate, thinking that maybe a burglar was trying to get inside.

He tiptoed out to the kitchen, turned on the porch light, and saw not one but three masked bandits—a mother raccoon and her two kits. Since we had taken in our bird feeders two months before, he couldn’t figure out what they were doing as the little ones climbed up on the railing and the post that supported the porch roof. He shone his flashlight on first one kit, then the other, and finally on the mother but none of them seemed bothered by the light.

Raccoon family unit

Raccoon family unit (photo: Bruce Irschick, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

He watched as they sniffed and explored. At last they climbed off the porch and trundled over to the outside cellar steps. Then one of the kits poked around in the grasses just below our sitting room bow window. That was when the mother raccoon noticed Bruce watching them. Or perhaps she smelled him through the screened window. She snarled loudly, but all three raccoons kept poking around in the underbrush as they made their way slowly toward the front of the house and out of sight.

This time it was Bruce who wondered about the mind of a raccoon, and the next morning Dave solved the mystery. He noticed that a bald-faced hornet nest (Dolichovespula maculate), which had been attached to the porch roof, lay in gray tatters on the porch floor. In that case, the mother raccoon had been teaching her kits about one of their favorite foods. I was reminded of a Nature show I had watched on PBS about how cleverly raccoons adjust to and find food and shelter even in busy cities. According to raccoon researcher, Stan Gehrt, raccoons are incredibly adaptive. Even their personalities change from shy and reclusive in the country to bold in the city as they use their hand-like paws and mammal-sized brains to defeat humans’ numerous attempts to design raccoon-proof garbage cans.

The male flicker at the nest hole

The male flicker at the nest hole (photo: Rachel Rawlins)

During last May and June Dave enjoyed sitting on his front porch and watching a yellow-shafted flicker family set up housekeeping in a dead elm tree at the edge of his yard. For more than a week in early May, the male and female took turns excavating the hole said to be 13 to 16 inches deep. Muffled knocks from inside the dead elm led to a flicker head popping out of the hole and flinging a bill full of wood chips into the air.

Eventually, by mid-May, their excavation work was over, and the female laid her 5 to 8 eggs. Then the parents attended the nest in shifts, each one doing its share of work. They were due to hatch in 11 to 13 days. In the meantime, they fought off a pileated woodpecker, downy woodpecker, and another flicker, all coveting the nest hole, and reminding me of the many times I have watched flickers over the years try to establish a nest in a black walnut tree hole beside our driveway. Never once have they been successful because of gray squirrels who consider it their home.

On June 12 Dave noticed that both parents were outside the hole at the same time for as long as 15 minutes, and he wondered if the eggs had hatched. The next afternoon he again saw both parents outside, and the male sounded agitated. The female sat on a dead elm branch a few feet above the nest hole.

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

That’s when Dave noticed something sticking out of the cavity. It was the head of a black rat snake. Somehow the reptile had realized a meal awaited it 25 feet up the nearly smooth trunk of the dead elm and managed to climb it.

It remained in the hole, digesting its meal until 10:30 a.m. the following day, and Dave watched as it spent 50 minutes slowly descending the tree trunk, seemingly studying all the alternatives each time before moving to a new knot, branch, or other protrusion where it could gain some purchase. It used a tall lilac shrub limb to move from the elm trunk to a dead branch that arched up from farther down the tree and then followed that branch to a lower spot on the lilac and on to the ground.

All of this reminded me of the most notorious article I ever wrote that was published in Bird Watcher’s Digest about watching a black rat snake get into and out of a house wren nest built inside one of our back porch posts. It took the snake one hour and forty minutes as it maneuvered up to our second floor, peered into windows, slowly lowered its body down the shingled porch roof and down the post into the nest. When it finally emerged, it worked even harder finding its way out by way of the drain pipe, down the post, and on to ground with many stops as it seemed to think its way past obstacles and over rough spots. As Griffin wrote, “mental events such as consciousness and awareness are indicated by surprising yet effective solutions to changing, unforeseen, and uncommon problems.” Both Dave’s snake and especially mine seemed to show such awareness.

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

It had been a scolding Carolina wren, not the silent flicker parents, who sounded the snake alarm. And it was a Carolina wren who sang along with a mezzo-soprano in Massenet’s opera Werther, which Bruce and I were watching during a hot June afternoon. The wren was busy putting twigs in the gap next to our living room window air conditioner. I checked the pitch of both the soprano and the wren and realized they were performing a kind of duet. Was the wren challenging what it thought was a wren intruder or did it enjoy the music? This time I was reminded of a white-tailed deer that stood still outside our kitchen window years ago when I was playing Mendelssohn’s Elijah. She looked as if she was listening to the music.

Carolina wren at the window

Carolina wren at the window


Our last bird observation went on for much of June when an eastern whip-poor-will chose our yard and Dave’s for his evening and dawn chorusing. A couple times he landed on the flat porch roof outside our bedroom window. Once when I was awakened by him at 5:00 a.m., I put my glasses on and snuck to the window where I had a view of him belting out his calls at deafening volume for about five minutes. He seemed so small to have such a loud mouth and reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s assertive Lorax in the way he stood.

The whip-poor-will was, of course, acting as male whip-poor-wills always do in spring and early summer. I only wondered about him because he started later and stopped earlier than whip-poor-wills are reported to do. But then the life style of these birds is still poorly understood because of their secretive, nocturnal lives. No doubt they too are able to solve unexpected problems with enterprising solutions, the strongest evidence, Griffin concludes, that suggest animal consciousness.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

Unexpected Encounters

turkey henTo encounter the unexpected is why I go out day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, walking the same mountain trails. But I rarely have a Discovery Channel moment. At most, I might find a new wildflower, an unusual butterfly, or a rare bird.

Still, I’ve had my moments. Take the day in mid-April when I heard a turkey gobbling near the Far Field Road. Immediately, I lay down against the road bank, clad in my usual jeans and navy blue jacket and, grasping my Lynch’s Foolproof Turkey Call, I rendered my poor imitation of a clucking hen turkey.

A tom turkey strode into view and walked past my outstretched legs as he peered around for the clucking hen. Although he passed a mere 15 inches from my feet, he didn’t seem to notice me. I found that surprising since turkeys are supposed to have superb eyesight.

Pausing about 20 feet beyond my left side, he spread his tail feathers and puffed his side feathers in and out like the inflating and deflating of a balloon. Then he thrust his neck forward and gobbled loudly. I had the turkey call resting on my chest and using my right hand, which he couldn’t see from his vantage point, I was able to whine and cluck with it.

For nearly half an hour he gobbled and displayed, all the while looking up the bank, below the road, and directly at me. I answered his every gobble with whines and clucks, most of which were poorly executed, because the rotten rubber band holding the scraper to the box had snapped after my first cluck. But the sometimes odd sounds I made did not seem to matter to that turkey.

Finally, he walked within five feet of me to gobble and display and I had a superb view of his six-inch-long beard, his bright eyes, and his magnificent tail feathers. He often appeared to be looking directly at me, but I never moved. Several times, he also emitted a rattling sound like castanets, which is described by researchers as a threat call before turkeys begin to fight. Was he seeing me as a male rival or, more likely, a female that he hoped to vanquish and then court? Apparently, he was more interested in what I sounded like than what I looked like.

wild turkey at close range

At last, he strutted past me again and climbed the bank above my head. Still gobbling, he tramped around in the woods, sounding like a heavy-footed human. I answered him with the call for several more minutes until he drifted away, his gobbles receding in the distance.

Only then did I move, because mindful of the upcoming spring gobbler season, I didn’t want him to associate a human with the noise he had heard. On the other hand, I doubt that any self-respecting turkey hunter would make the noise I had made. And I did wonder if I had called up the proverbial “dumb turkey.” Still, he had given me a never-to-be-forgotten encounter with a wild creature on his own turf with no blind or camouflage between him and me.

Despite being surprised by the turkey’s reaction to me, I had, to some extent, set him up by using a turkey call. That was not true of my next encounter.

On a late spring day, I was showing my husband Bruce invasive and native shrubs I wanted him to photograph for a talk I was scheduled to give. After photographing invasives such as Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, and privet on the former clearcut, I headed for a place where I knew the native red elderberry shrubs were already bearing fruit. Bruce was in a hurry to get back to his work at the computer, so I rushed heedlessly along our trails intent on finding the shrubs.

As I descended a steep section of the trail slightly ahead of Bruce, suddenly I spotted little coyotes ahead of us. I froze and so did Bruce. Instead of running away, they proceeded to silently wrestle with one another a mere 40 feet from us. Occasionally they looked up, and once a pup sniffed the air, advanced toward us, and then retreated. Altogether, I counted five little ones.

We inched closer, Bruce clicking his camera, as they continued wrestling and tumbling about, sometimes paired, sometimes threesomes, and sometimes all five piling on. They had reddish-brown coats and black-tipped tails. Their legs seemed too long for their bodies and their pointed ears too large for their faces. Although they were as cute as any puppies, their bodies were rangy rather than puppy-plump.

coyote pupsEventually they ran up an old creek bed and played a few rounds of “king of the mountain” on fallen trees before they slipped beneath two large, old tree trunks in a sea of hay-scented ferns, which effectively hid their den entrance. I waited, but they didn’t emerge again. Still, I had had the longest, closest look ever of young, playing coyotes.

And those red elderberry shrubs I’d been searching for? Once the coyotes disappeared, I found the shrubs along the same stretch of trail where we had been watching the pups. As I neared the largest of the shrubs, a male rose-breasted grosbeak landed on it and ate all the berries, a sight that would have ordinarily made my day but had been upstaged by the coyote pup sighting.

micrathena dorsal viewLooking for one thing and finding another is also the theme of my third unexpected encounter. Early on a warm August day I was watching female spined micrathenas spinning their daily webs. Because there are so many of these webs across our trails in August, I had been studying them. The spiders were said to bite their prey first and then wrap it in silk, something I had previously observed them doing. I had also been listening for their low-pitched buzz, which is supposed to be audible to humans two feet away. While the females are large and showy with spiny abdomens, the males are tiny and have flattened elongated, whitish abdomens.

Hoping to spot a male courting a female in a web, I instead found what looked like an egg sac, hanging from a single silk thread and spinning in mid-air. I fumbled for my hand lens in my fanny pack and went down on one knee, like a petitioner, to try to catch the swaying white sac, which was about a quarter the size of my littlest fingernail, in the lens.

It looked like the egg sac of a spined micrathena, especially through the lens, but I wasn’t certain. I was focusing intently on trying to keep the swinging sac in view when I heard a slight noise behind me. Assuming it was my son Dave out taking photos and trying to startle me, I paid no attention to the sound.

Then something nudged me in my rear end.

In the same instant I dismissed Dave as the culprit, I spun around, still on one knee, and came face to face with a large porcupine. porcupineI stumbled and fell forward as I half turned around and tried to scramble out of its way at the same time, all the while hoping it wouldn’t fill my posterior with quills. My second attempt to get to my feet was successful and I quickly moved down the trail.

But the porcupine seemed to be as startled by the encounter as I was. After all, porcupines don’t see very well and this one had clearly blundered into me.

It turned and shinnied 25 feet up into a fork of a large chestnut oak tree. Its nostrils flared out as it sniffed my scent, and it bared its orange front teeth, full of bravado now that it was out of harm’s way.

These and other adventures in nature I have had over the years keep me out in all kinds of weather like hunters stalking their prey. Only I’m stalking stories that I can tell. Before there was civilization, preliterate humans sat in small family groups around campfires and told stories of what they had seen while hunting and gathering and living out among the wild creatures. Some still do in remote areas of the world. And, as I’ve discovered, some of our hunters are also superb story tellers, not only telling stories of their hunts but of the other wildlife they have watched while sitting in their tree stands.

I admit that many hunters have called in turkeys and may have had similar experiences to mine with the tom turkey. And I’m certain there have been folks who have seen frolicking coyote pups.

But is there anyone out there who has ever been poked in the rear by a porcupine?
__________

All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow, except for the photo of the coyote pup, which Bruce took. The first turkey photo is of a hen in the field, that had small chicks with her; the second is a close-up of a jake (two-year-old male) shot by one of our hunter friends during Spring Gobbler Season in April 2008. The spider is a female spined micrathena.

As a bonus, here’s a video Dave shot with his digital camera last July in the spruce grove.


From the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.