I was watching television with my dog, Oreo, late last Friday night when I heard a strange sound coming from outside — a sort of shrieking that I’d never heard before but was undoubtedly the call of wild animal. Without hesitation I grabbed my camera and headed out onto the front porch to investigate.
I left the light off, not wanting to scare the creature away, but when I walked out the door, the sound became so loud that I realized the animal was just feet away. I was bit concerned for my own safety at that point — there have been a few cases of rabid animals in Maine recently, after all — so I hopped back inside to grab a flashlight.
Stepping back onto my front porch with flashlight and camera at the ready, I spotted the noisemaker: a big, prickly porcupine. And right beside her (I’m taking a stab in the dark, pun intended, that it was a female) was another porcupine.
They were only about 10 feet away, and while the second porcupine acknowledged my presence by scampering away a few feet, the first porcupine held her ground and continued to stare at her comrade — or was it enemy? After a few seconds I noticed that both animals had quills sticking out of their front paws. And the shrieks (or grunts or yips) that the first porcupine was making didn’t seem, to me at least, to be happy sounds. In fact, she seemed quite angry.
One thing was certain, the two animals had no interest in me. It wasn’t long before the second porcupine was crawling right back toward the first, causing her to cry out even louder, her long front teeth illuminated by my flashlight. And I wondered, do porcupines bite when they fight? For food, they gnaw on bark, so I can only imagine the type of damage their strong front teeth could do.
Now let’s pause for a moment for a few quick facts about porcupines, information that will be important to this story.
Common throughout much of the United States (though not in the southeastern states), porcupines are covered with long, sharp quills that serve as an effective defense against predators. There are very few animals that can (or will bother) to kill a porcupine. In Maine, the fisher is one of the only animals that will attempt this daredevil feat, and to be successful, they must flip the porcupine over somehow to attack its soft belly. You see porcupines only have quills on their back, sides and top of their head. Their chest, face and belly are quill-free.
Now, moving on with the story. As the second porcupine drew closer, he rose up on his hind legs, revealing a number of quills embedded in his stomach and chest. He also had a quill near his mouth. And then the first porcupine rose up on her hind legs, revealing that she, too, had been stuck with quills in her soft underside.
So at that point, it was clear to me that they were fighting.
“Why in my yard?” I asked them.
While I find porcupines to be interesting and actually quite adorable, I don’t enjoy having them around my house because they’re a real problem for dogs. My dog, Oreo, has been quilled by porcupines twice, and both times it was in my yard.
If you want to hear about these stressful experiences, which included driving my quilled dog to the veterinarian for a $400 quill extraction, just click here.
Anyway — it was clear to me the two porcupines weren’t going to stop fighting. The second one kept creeping closer, instigating. So I started to yell. And yell. It took a lot of yelling to scare them off. I’m surprised my neighbors — though they live a quarter mile down the road — didn’t call the cops.
The porcupines ran in separate directions, and yes, I chased them a bit to ensure they’d keep going, away from my house. And ever since, I’ve had to be extra careful about letting Oreo outside, especially at night when porcupines are more active. It’s a bit of a pain, but these are the things you have to deal with when you live in the Maine woods. For me, the beauty, peace and privacy of the location makes the random wildlife issues worth the trouble.
After the strange event, I contacted Maine wildlife biologist Shevenell Webb, who specializes in small mammals at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and she was very interested in my story. She told me that porcupines are rarely seen fighting. They’re solitary animals, and sometimes they even den together in the winter in quite a peaceful manner.
“Usually the interactions are friendly and quiet,” said Webb. “So what you described is a really interesting observation. They’re not territorial typically.”
So Webb did some digging for me, contacting a porcupine expert in western Canada, Todd Zimmerling of the Alberta Conservation Association. And coincidentally, he had just received a report of a similar porcupine encounter in his area — all the way across the country. After some discussion, they decided that the most likely scenario is that it was a male porcupine trying to mate with the female very early in the season.
“It could have been a young male trying to go after a female porcupine and the female wasn’t having any of that,” Webb said. “It’s quite possible it was a practice run. We aren’t that far from fall (which is porcupine mating season).”
Looking back what I witnessed, I’m guessing the first porcupine (on the left in the video and photos) was the older female, since she seemed to be a bit larger with duller, shorter quills. She was also the one making all the noise. And I imagine the second porcupine being the young male, with his bright, long quills and general spunkiness. If you listen closely in the video, you’ll hear him chattering his teeth — another form or porcupine communication.
Being an animal lover, the one thing that bothered me about the encounter was the fact that the porcupines were both stuck with quills, which have microscopic barbs that cause them to burrow deeper into the skin and cause infection. If left alone, porcupine quills can be dangerous. But Webb offered some reassurance.
“Porcupines have built-in antibiotics so that when they fall out of trees — which apparently they do somewhat regularly — and they stick themselves with their quills, they’ll heal and won’t die like other animals would,” Webb said.
So I only had one question left for the biologist: How do they mate?
“The female has to lay those quills down, otherwise that’s not good,” Webb said.
Maybe later in the season the two will find each other again. And maybe then the female will smooth down her quills for the male. Then next year, there will even more porcupines wandering around my house. Great.
Share your porcupine encounters in the comment section below! Or let me know what you think was happening. Interpreting wildlife behavior can be tricky. Maybe something else was going on? I’d love to hear what you think.