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PORCUPINE TRACKS

Tina Hartell

After two weeks, the snow has finally settled into a manageable snowpack. We’re going to wind up tapping this week and movement in the sugarbush has eased up from an over-the-kneep-flail-fest to a fairly easy snowshoe. For those two weeks of bitter cold and drifting snow, there was almost no animal movement. They, too, knew how compromising it was to expend energy in those conditions. It’s only now that I’ve seen tracks of coyote, mouse, and one lone moose traverse Bobo’s Mountain.

However, one animal wasted no time getting out of their den into the deep snow and start feeding on meager cambium and hemlock needles: the North American Porcupine. There have always been porcupine on the mountain the but this winter they seem to be more noticeable. Perhaps it’s been the absence of other animal tracks or maybe their population has increased. Whatever the reason, their impact has been significant.

The first thing I noticed were their tracks. They don’t make tracks per se, more like hollowed out waddle grooves in the snow. Porcupines are not known for their height or their grace, so as they waddle out in the snow, they use the same tracks over and over. Like me in my snowshoes.

From these paths, you can easily find their dens, usually a hole in rocks well marked with urine and scat. 

 Porcupines are nocturnal and have an amazing survival strategy that involves scary barbed quills up to 4″ long and eating some of the least nutritional foods in some of the coldest climates. They move slowly (hence the quills) and survive the winter eating cambium from trees (the living layer of tissue under the tree’s bark) and conifer needles. They can do exceptional damage to trees like this spruce by stripping bark off, essentially killing it.

Now I’m delighted that the porcupines are clearing spruce out of my sugarbush, but porcupines are also known to like maple trees. So I’ve been watching them carefully and they seem to have a sense of where they are. Maybe it’s their careful high stepping over low-lying tubing or their choice of trees, but so far they seem to know the rules: no chewing on lines and no killing maple trees. We’ll see what happens when the sap flows.