Porcupine quills quite a thrill

Porcupine quills were stuck into the base of a tree in my neighbor’s yard, and seeing them prompted my friend to write to me. My guess is that some enemy of the prickly mammal frightened the porcupine, and there was some sort of altercation. No other signs of a fight were present.

The sharp quills on most of the porcupine‚Äôs body are its only defense. When threatened, the porcupine tucks its head between its front legs or behind some object nearby, turns its body and rapidly swings its tail covered with quills. If the attacker comes in contact with this tail, one or more quills penetrate its body, and once the skin is penetrated, the quill absorbs moisture from the victim’s body and swells a bit. Any contraction of the victim’s muscles sends the quill deeper into its body. The quill actually travels at about one inch a day.

One of my husband’s scientific friends many years ago wanted to prove a point about the quill and its barbs penetrating the skin and traveling through the body, so he deliberately stuck a quill in his leg. He then let it work its way through and come out the other side. It did hurt! He suffered for science! Pulling it out hurts as well, but it needs to be done.

I remember coming out of the vet’s office in Bar Harbor late one afternoon when a big hound dog was just arriving with its face looking like a pin cushion as quills covered it. The dog was not a happy one. Some dogs never seem to remember the bad experience they had with attacking a porcupine, for once their discomfort is over from a bad episode, they readily attack one again the next time they see one. If a quill is not removed from some parts of the body, it is not just painful but can be life threatening.

The quills are not thrown as some people used to believe, but they come out easily when the tail is lashed around by the frightened mammal. The quills, as many as 30,000, are most dense on the animal’s back and the upper surface of the tail.

When baby porcupines are born, their quills are soft, but within an hour’s time, they harden. Many porcupines get killed on the road, for they are slow moving mammals. They don’t consider the car a threat, and cars easily hit them. They waddle slowly along through the woods and across roads swinging their hips and tail from side to side.

Although they are solitary through most of the year, several may den together in the winter. The den may be in a crevice, a cave or old building. Friends of mine from Wisconsin have a summer home in Tremont, and when they returned a year or so ago for vacation, they discovered their home had been used by raccoons when they were gone, and some outer buildings had been visited by porcupines. It was a bit of mess to clean up, but now all possible entrances are sealed up tight, and the wild creatures will have to find some other place for this Maine winter. Any cozy, warmer place is fair game for housing for man or beast!

The yellow-rumped warbler is the only warbler you will encounter in the woods now. In older bird books, this warbler was known as the myrtle warbler. That name is gone now, and it is called the yellow-rumped warbler, which is accurately descriptive. I have several very old Peterson Field Guides from the 1930s and 40s that have it listed as the myrtle warbler. The newer name is descriptive, for this small bird has a distinctive yellow rump which attracts your attention as the bird flits about.

It survives here in Maine in a cold winter, for besides insects, which are not readily available in the colder months, the bird eats bayberries, and it will come to feeders for fruit and suet. These warblers have a yellow rump and a yellow patch on both sides and in the front of each wing. They are colorful and lively birds and nice to see. A friend just back from a Florida visit said there were many of these colorful small birds visible down there in the thickets as well.

Keep watching these wintry days for a glimpse of a northern shrike. They are apt to make an appearance now and are interesting birds to see. They are robin-sized and gray and white in color. There are two shrikes, the northern and the loggerhead, but here on the island you are most apt to see the northern shrike. A loggerhead shrike would be very rare.

Shrikes are open country birds and they have a no-nonsense look on their faces which have a striking black mask across the eyes and bill. The shrike is classified as a song bird, but it gives the impression of a bird of prey. Although shrikes feed mainly on insects in the summer time, they depend on birds and mice for winter food. Your feeder makes an excellent eating place. With great speed and accuracy, they will strike down a chosen victim. Their dark, hooked bill is very powerful and deals a lethal blow. If you are not familiar with this bird, look it up in a bird guide; it is quite handsome.

Shrikes have earned the nickname ‘butcher bird’ because of their habit of hanging up their catch, small bird or large insect, on a thorn or barbed-wire fence, in the manner of an old-time butcher skewering his meat. They might even tuck their catch in the fork of a nearby branch for later eating.

Send any questions or observation to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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