Tracking the porcupine

Trail to porcupine den site

I took Raven over to the 100-acre woods this afternoon. I hadn’t been over there in a little while, except for a quick hike through one day without camera or binoculars (I know, I know – you’re asking, why would I ever go for a hike without my camera? Sometimes, I guess, I just like to enjoy the forest for itself, and leaving the camera at home gives me more freedom to do that. Something like that, anyway.). The south portion of the property is completely forested, while the north end has open meadows chained together. There are access points at both sides of the property, one from the road, on the south, and the other from the rail-bed trail, on the north. Today I took the road, deciding I wasn’t really in a meadow mood. When I arrived I thought I would perhaps do a loop through the trails that stuck to the woods and return to the road entrance.

I started off according to plan. I headed down the west loop first, with the intention of taking that to one of the cross trails that would lead me to the loops on the east side. I got halfway down the west loop and then changed my mind. There was what looked like a small clearing set back from the trail, on the other side of some wild roses. Maybe I’d go check that out, and just cut through the forest to pick up the cross trail instead. So I changed course, pushed gingerly through the roses, checked out the clearing, and kept going.

And then, a short distance farther, I stumbled across the above, a very dirty track in the snow leading to a hole at the base of a dead tree.

Porcupine den site

Oh, what a fabulous discovery! My immediate first thought was that it was the nighttime den of a Snowshoe Hare, given the well-worn track that led right up to the doorway. It reminded me of the hare highways I blogged about a bit earlier this winter. I started to have doubts as I got closer, though. For one thing, the den was completely surrounded by, and filled with, the animal’s droppings. They weren’t droppings I recognized. Too big for rabbits, definitely too big for squirrels. Those of raccoons more resemble dogs or cats, and raccoons would be unlikely to be out and about anyway.

Porcupine den site

What was left? Porcupines? But they didn’t look like the porcupine poop I was used to seeing, either, which is a light sawdust colour, narrow, and curved like macaroni. Of all the droppings I know, these ones reminded me most of deer, actually – but there was no way a deer would fit in that little hole.

Trail to porcupine den site

I decided to try following the trail to wherever it led to, and maybe seeing if I could pick out any tracks on it along the way. It wound through some dense rose shrubs, which I decided to skirt around instead of push through, and then carried on through the forest. Eventually the trail led up to the large tree here. Recognize it? It’s the same tree that Raven discovered a porcupine in back in the fall. That pretty much confirmed the identity of the critter for me.

Below porcupine den site

At the base of this tree, more piles of droppings. These usually accumulate over the course of a winter underneath den trees or feeding sites, since the porcupine can’t be bothered going far when it’s snoozing. Dens are used through the entire winter, so the piles can grow quite large. They’ll break down over the summer, and will be nearly or entirely gone by next winter.

Below porcupine den site

There was a narrow cedar log propped up on one side of the big tree, with its own small pile of droppings at its base. I wondered if the porcupine would sometimes climb up using that, which was at a shallower incline than going straight up the tree. It might be possible that there are two (or more) porcupines denning in this tree, and one of them prefers the log while the other uses the trunk. Porcupines are usually solitary creatures, but if den sites are at a premium they’ll sometimes come together and share a den in the winter.

Porcupine den site

Just like at the first den, there are packed-down droppings right in front of the den’s door. In doing some research on the porcupine’s habit of defecating on its front stoop, I learned that the reason I didn’t recognize these droppings is that the shape of the pellets is diet-related. Tough bark makes up more of the porcupine’s diet in winter, and so the droppings are more compact; in the summer, when it incorporates more soft food like leaves or grasses into its diet, its droppings resemble those that I’d found before. I’ve encountered a few of these paler sorts through both this winter and last, as well, so presumably they’re the result of different diet preferences between individuals.

Eastern Hemlock boughs clipped by porcupine

There was another trail that led away from the big tree in a different direction from the one that I’d followed in. I decided to follow this one, too, to see where it went. Although I didn’t find this out until I came back home and poked around a bit, porcupines rarely travel farther than 100 m (300 feet) between their den and their feeding sites in the winter (summer ranges can be considerably larger). I figure the first trail I followed was about 60 m (200 feet) between the first den and the second.

After a similar distance, this second trail stopped at the base of a group of hemlocks that lined the small creek that cuts through the forest. Underneath the hemlocks were all these branch ends. I’d seen this before, and I’d just assumed that the poor trees had had a rough time of it in the last ice storm or something. Now I looked a bit closer.

Eastern Hemlock boughs clipped by porcupine

All of them appeared to be snipped off neatly. I learned, again after returning home, that here in the northeast Eastern Hemlock is a favourite winter food of porcupines, such that some will feed on it nearly exclusively. They chew on the inner bark of the trunk, but they’ll also forage on the needles and small twigs of the branches. Given that one doesn’t encounter many trees with their trunks chewed apart, my guess is that the branches make up the bulk of their winter diet. White Pine is another favoured species, which makes me wonder if the hemlock-feeders have the dark, compact droppings and the pine-feeders have the narrow, paler droppings. I’ve also seen some evidence in our little bog to suggest that at least one porcupine was feeding on the tamarack (also pale droppings there).

In my poking around, I turned up this video of a porcupine feeding on hemlock twigs, taken and posted by Dave at Via Negativa last winter. Check out the narrow little branch the animal decides to climb! It’s practically tightrope-walking.

I ended up using up my alloted hiking time tracking the porcupine, and I never did make it around to pick up the cross trail. After I’d found the feeding site I returned back to the trail I’d come in by and headed back home. However, during that short bit of wandering around off-trail I collected up a number of blog-worthy photos, so I’ll have some stuff to share for the next little while!


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

34 thoughts on “Tracking the porcupine”

      1. Well lemme know if you decide to take the plunge and want some pointers on them. Basic units are about $200, and nicer ones that shoot IR at night and have higher resolution are about $400. Or, if you or hubby is handy with a soldering iron, there are kits that allow you to hack and use older point & shoot cameras too, with a total cost (w cam) of about $200. That’s the kind the Cam Trap Codger uses, and that I’m moving over to now for the greater control, speed and pic quality. :)

        1. Thanks! I’ll remember your offer. I doubt it will be anytime in the immediate future, unfortunately, though perhaps when the moth guide comes out and becomes a bestselling success and I get madly rich…

  1. …and here I thought that the Mexican Hairy Dwarf Porcupine formerly in my care was just a slacker; in the summer he’d venture 3′ down from his log to relieve himself. In winter he’d trek a whopping 2.5′ outside of his den. Thanks for the post!

  2. I never would have guessed. Texas reportedly has porcupines in western and southern portions of the state – so maybe that’s why I’ve never seen such poopy dens. Learned something new today!

    1. It’s all about getting off the beaten path and opening your eyes, KS! It shocks me sometimes how much I’ve missed in the previous couple of decades of wandering around in the forest, just because I wasn’t looking.

  3. Your story on the porcupines brought me to my experience with them..Last summer during the night i could hear rumbling in my garage…I was too chicken to get up and see what was going on…the next morning when I went to see there was scat everywhere….I opened the garage doors and couldn’t see anything then under my work table I saw this ball of fur and I poked it not knowing what it was…then i saw it was a porcupine…it left the garage and i never saw it again..the scat was a darker color than what I see on your pictures….what a mess…

  4. Come to think of it, this would be perfect timing to check on the one live porcupine I’ve ever seen – its territory is on an Air Force base though, and 3 hrs away. Otherwise there’s not much to glean from the behavior of roadkill =( But that’s TX for you. Wish I could remember if the live one was in a mesquite or a pecan…

    1. That’d be a bit of a trek, Heidi, just to check in on a critter. It’s a shame about the conflict between animals and roads. Our animals tend not to win those encounters, either.

  5. I like the tracks that porcupines leave, and remember being staggared by it the first time I found them. They have a dimpled pattern, like the dimpling on a a basketball.

    1. That’s cool, Clare. Though I’ve seen porcupines a few times now, or in this case its trails, I’ve yet to see nicely defined tracks. I wonder what would create the dimpling?

  6. That is so cool, Seabrooke! Great bit of detective work. I had to laugh that you spent all your time tracking the porcupines; tangents like that often do the same to me.

    And I couldn’t agree more on taking walks from time to time without the camera. Like you, I’ve learned the lens can get in the way.

    1. So easy to get distracted by interesting things out there, Jason! Fortunately, it’s a good thing. As long as you’re not expected somewhere at a certain time. :)

  7. Seabrooke, What an interestig post about the porcupine’s den and scat. My daughter is a professional dog walker — taking out groups of dogs in the mountain canyons Of Utah. Sometimes she has a dog or two who turn up a porcupine and ends up with quills stuck in their faces. A pain for the dogs as well as my daughter who has to pull them out with pliers (usually 60 to 80 per face!). I am gong to tell her about your post and maybe she can identify a den or two on her trail walks and then steer her dogs away from the area as you said they don’t travel far from the den. Great post. — barbara

  8. Excellent post.

    Wonder if porcupine poop would make good garden fertiliser? Or paper? (I think someone here manufactures hand-made paper from sheep droppings.)

  9. This is awesome – I found a feed tree yesterday, when out tracking, and it was great to compare it to your pics. It was so exciting to find – thanks for posting yours – and I look forward to reading your other posts.

  10. Here east of Yellowstone, porcupines are not as prevalent as they used to be for unknown reasons. Interestingly, I’ve seen several road killed porcupines down in the high desert, rather than the mountains. They have to cross fields to get to riparian areas where I presume what they are feeding on is Cottonwoods. But I finally saw my first one here this last summer in a dense coniferous forest. Thanks for all the great info on denning and sign. It will help me try and locate more porcs around here. I understand that in the Sierras of California, porcupines have become such a rarity that rangers are asking hikers to report sightings. Not quite sure what is going on with the critters. Any ideas?

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  13. Their tracks show four toes on the front foot and five on the hind foot. Marks made by the long claws usually show. The heel pads have a pebbly texture. This acts as a non-slip surface and helps them climb trees. Sometimes, a tail drag mark is visible in the trail. Porcupine scat is in pellet form, and often found in piles at the base of a tree where the animal has been feeding. The picture above shows a tree damaged by a porcupine. This type of feeding sign is common.

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