Two weekends ago I spent my Saturday morning at the Old Quarry Trail. A part of the Stony Swamp Conservation Area, it is similar to Jack Pine Trail in habitat and species. I found 11 bird species in my 2 hours there, more species than I have seen in any of my recent walks at Jack Pine Trail. At the “Deer John” feeder area I found a single Mourning Dove, a singing American Robin, a White-breasted Nuthatch and numerous chickadees. Deeper in the woods I saw a Brown Creeper, a Pileated Woodpecker, another singing American Robin, a couple of cardinals, and several Red-breasted Nuthatches. A single American Goldfinch and several crows flew over, while back near the parking lot I heard a single Blue Jay.
The Old Quarry Trail is a great spot to see deer and porcupines. I only spotted two deer along my walk, neither of which were approachable, and both of which were deep in the woods off-trail. I had better luck with the porcupines. A couple of skiers who saw me watching the Pileated Woodpecker told me about a porcupine sitting on the ground right next to the trail, and said that it didn’t move even when they passed right by it. Instead, the porcupine remained where it was and curled up in a ball. I set off in the direction they had indicated, and it didn’t take me long to find the porcupine. It was sitting still with its head up, but when I began to approach it, it lowered its head and covered its head with its paws.
As it was right next to the trail, I would have to walk within a few feet of the porcupine in order to pass it. I approached it cautiously, though I knew that the porcupine is dangerous only when attacked, and that its first instinct is to climb a tree and escape rather than lash out with its dangerous, quill-laden tail. The porcupine didn’t move; it continued to sit on the ground with its face in its paws even when I stopped beside it and crouched down to take a few photos.
Few predators would dare to attack a porcupine. The only mammal that is able to regularly hunt and kill porcupines with success is the fisher, a large, formidable member of the weasel family. Fishers attack porcupines from the front, biting or grabbing them in the face, which does not have any quills. After it is able to subdue the porcupine by repeatedly attacking its face, the fisher then flips the porcupine over to feed on the quill-free belly.
I wondered if the porcupine was injured and unable to move, and thus was hiding its face in its paws to protect it. I walked on a little ways, stopped to feed some chickadees and a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and after about 10 or 15 minutes went back to check on the porcupine. To my relief it had moved a little further along, though it was still curled up in a ball.
A little further along the trail I came upon a second porcupine on the ground. It was hunched up against a thin cedar, and when it saw me it looked up briefly. It appeared to be eating something close to its body or cleaning its belly.
Again, the porcupine was fairly close to the trail and I would have to pass by very close to it. I didn’t think much of it until something on the snow about two feet away on the other side of a couple of cedar trees caught my attention. It looked like a chunk of porcupine flesh, complete with fur and quills. I examined it hesitantly, unsure if it was a piece of its tail or a foot, but when I didn’t see any blood I picked it up in order to photograph it. It looked just like what it was, a piece of flesh.
I went back to the porcupine and watched it for a while. When it looked up again I noticed that a piece of flesh was missing from its jaw.
I posted these photos on Facebook, and my learned naturalist friends suggested that the damage was caused by a fisher attacking the porcupine’s face. Had the porcupine protected its face in time in order to avoid being incapacitated and eaten? Or did the porcupine strike out, and send the fisher off with a face full of quills?
What was interesting to me was that there was no blood in the immediate vicinity. Had the attack occurred somewhere else? Was it even a fisher that had attacked the porcupine, or did the porcupine injure itself some way? They have been known to fall out of trees….and I did find the piece of flesh near the base of two cedars.
I suppose the answers to these questions will never be known. Hopefully both porcupines are fine, and will live to see another spring.