Porcupine Lunch Break



Most North American mammals are elusive and difficult to find or photograph, even when you are in the right habitat at the right time of day. Coyotes want nothing to do with humans and just run off when they see one; deer have become much less common than they used to be (as have groundhogs and muskrats, for some reason); I’m apparently only allowed to see one beaver each year; I’m convinced that moose actually don’t exist in Ontario; and the only raccoons and skunks I’ve seen in the daylight were “sleeping” next to the road with large tire tracks across their bodies (but I don’t like to think about that). Even when I manage to find a mammal worth photographing they don’t stay in sight for long, and don’t allow you to spend much time in their presence as they go about their lives. I have had some luck with various members of the weasel family in the past year or so; they tend to be curious and not too disturbed by my presence, as long as I stand still and keep my distance.

Porcupines are around, but it takes a bit of luck to find them. Stony Swamp is the best place to see Canada’s second largest rodent, and I still see several each year. However, they mostly spend their days up in the tree tops either sleeping or eating…which is not the kind of nature encounter I am hoping for when I go out. Occasionally I find one walking on the ground, though it’s often just to head to another tree and climb. Once I found a baby porcupine foraging on the ground, and it was so cute I had to shoot some video of it. I haven’t had that kind of experience with a porcupine in a long time…until today.

I was birding along Trail 24, a section of Stony Swamp that lies between Bridlewood to the west, Old Richmond Road to the east, and Bell’s Corners to the north. The portion of the Rideau Trail that runs through here and includes the trail starting at parking lot P6 is part of Trail 24. There are multiple entrances, which is great when the NCC parking lots start filling up by 10:30 on the weekends, but as it was a weekday it wasn’t too busy.

The encounter started with a rustling in the bushes of a relatively open area I was checking for migrants. It was relatively quiet for birds, but the rustling immediately caught my attention as I could see the branches moving. A quick scan with my binoculars revealed a porcupine moving beneath the shrub on the ground, heading out toward the trail! I immediately walked backward several paces and waited for it to emerge.



The porcupine crossed the path with no inkling that I was standing about twenty feet away, taking its photo. I like the image above, as it shows its huge paws. Even without the quills I wouldn’t want to tangle with a porcupine, which is why I kept my distance and barely moved as I didn’t want to interfere with its ramble. Porcupines are not dangerous if you keep your distance, don’t startle them by making unpredictable or threatening movements, and ensure they always have an escape route. This one continued to go about its business, stopping in front of the line of shrubs bordering the open grassy area as if inspecting the offerings at a buffet.


It then poked around the shrubs until it found the delicacy it was looking for.


The porcupine pulled out a branch full of fresh green leaves to eat. In the below photo you can see the wide open mouth, and the reddish-orange colour of the lower tooth. Like beavers, the enamel of porcupine teeth contains a high amount of iron oxide which gives them an orange colour. This makes them strong enough to chew through wood bark, deer antlers, and animal bones in the winter when leafy greens are in short supply.



In the next two images the porcupine has pulled out some more branches with its huge paws to feed on the tender young leaves. These mammals have been known to feed on the leaves of currant, rose, thorn apple, violets, dandelion, clover, and grasses. Plants that grow in the water are not safe from this herbivore; the porcupine is capable of swimming in ponds and streams to feed on the leaves of water lily and arrowhead. Its quills are useful for swimming, as they are hollow and filled with air which helps keep it afloat.



In the winter, the inner bark of spruce, pines, hemlock and birch is consumed; large bare patches on the trunks give away this animal’s presence. If you are walking on a snow-covered trail in the depths of winter and happen upon an area filled with scattered green pine needles, round little pellets, and sprays of bright yellow or orange urine on the snow, carefully look up – there might just be a porcupine feeding in the tree above you. Just don’t linger beneath one as it’s feeding!


I had a great time watching the porcupine feed right in front of me, as I had never spent so much time this close to one. Unfortunately, I must have made a noise and caught its attention while shifting my balance, for the porcupine was not thrilled to discover how close I was. It turned its back to me and lumbered off into the thickets, disappearing into the forest.


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