Signs of porcupine

Porcupine den

A couple of weeks ago, Dan returned from a walk with Raven and said that they’d discovered a den. It was on the neighbour’s property about a third of the way back along our fence, visible from the fenceline. It was too dark by that point for photos, and the following day was raining, but I did manage to get out with Raven the day after that. He hadn’t been sure what it was, and given Raven’s curiosity in such things, hadn’t spent much time investigating. When I returned with Raven I made sure to have her sit and wait at a safe distance, just in case.

The den was larger than I was expecting, located halfway up a sandy bank, under the overhanging branches of a large fir. The slope had been worn down with the repeated passing of little feet, though there weren’t any obvious tracks in the soft substrate when I got closer. I’d have to look for some other clue to the identity of the owner.

Porcupine den

Fortunately, that clue wasn’t hard to find. Outside the front door, and just inside the entrance, were many dried droppings of a shape and size that I recognized immediately: the round pellet-like winter scat of a porcupine. Nearly all of them were quite old, suggesting that the den site had probably been used last winter. Whether it was being used this winter or not I wasn’t sure. As soon as the snows settle in porcupines start relieving themselves just outside the den (can you blame them? if you were all alone in your cabin in the woods, wouldn’t you just pee off the back porch instead of hiking through the snow to the outhouse, too?), but during the snow-free months, while the animal has more freedom to wander around, it’s more fastidious in its housekeeping. Normally you’re likely to encounter the pale macaroni-shaped summer scat underneath the feeding trees or in the middle of the forest floor, instead.

On occasion, when I’ve found a porcupine den before, I’ve noticed a few shed quills outside the entrance, but I didn’t see any this time. I’m not actually sure if the den is in use yet; I gather that porcupines have separate summer and winter den sites, with the latter often being at ground level and the former being in a hollow in a tree. If he hasn’t yet moved in, that would explain both the lack of fresh droppings and the absence of shed quills.

Porcupine feeding sign - snipped-off balsam fir twigs

I snapped a few photos then carried on along the fenceline, looking for a good place to hop it to cross back to our property. Along the way I passed through a grove of Balsam Fir, which we seem to have more of in the immediate vicinity of our house than any other naturally-occurring conifer (the owners had at some point planted a fair bit of spruce and pine between the house and the road as a privacy screen, but there isn’t much of it in the neighbouring woods). Eyes to the ground as I picked my way across some fallen branches, I noticed small bits of balsam twigs scattered over the forest floor beneath the trees.

Although I scanned the trees themselves and saw nothing, these are pretty clear evidence of porcupine foraging – in all likelihood, the same individual who will be using that den, come winter. I found this interesting, because it was my understanding that northern porcupines feed nearly exclusively on hemlock during the winter months, with a bit of White Pine thrown in for occasional variety. On the other hand, I noticed feeding sign on one of the tamaracks in the bog last winter, and with not too many hemlock in the immediate area, perhaps the animal was just eating what was available.

I’ll have to come back once we have some snow on the ground and see whether the den is occupied and, if so, where he’s feeding. After finding the trails of a porcupine last winter, I’ll be curious to know what this one’s home range is like.

Tay Meadow Tidbit – mammal scat

Scat with grasshopper bits

We all know the reasons to stay on the trail: mostly to protect the vegetation and other things from the disturbance and damage of many feet walking over them. Perhaps also to avoid getting lost, or because trails generally have safer footing. In public places such as parks or conservation areas, this totally makes sense. But on private property, you can probably get away with hiking around off-trail, cutting through the bush, across an open field, along the edge of a pond or creek. Since it’s just your feet (or a small number of people, anyway, compared to public spaces), and you’re in a known area, there is less likelihood of any of the reasons to stay on the trail happening.

And there is one really good reason for the naturalist to stray off-trail: you’ll see more. On trail you’re limited to perhaps a few yards in either direction in terms of what you can reasonably observe. Anything further out than that you’re likely to walk right by without ever knowing it was there. On the trail you end up taking the same path time and again, and everything becomes familiar. You don’t have to watch where you’re placing your feet (or not as much) so you don’t spend as much time looking at the ground. Off-trail everything is new and you have to keep an eye on your surroundings. There’s the potential to encounter anything.

This afternoon I decided to cut across one of the fields in a transect that still took me roughly from point A to point B but through the grasses off-trail. I happened to cross a mossy bit of exposed rock. In this middle of the rock was this old piece of poop. Most animals don’t poop on trails, so you’re unlikely to encounter scat unless you happen to be venturing about off-trail.

My best guess on this is that it’s fox scat, but it’s started to decompose a little and it’s hard to discern shape now, one of the most useful clues for narrowing down the poopetrator. The candidates here for a tubular scat would most likely be fox, raccoon or skunk. I found a Google Book excerpt from A field guide to mammal tracking in western America by James C. Halfpenny, Elizabeth Biesiot, which provided some information on “scatology”. Canines, including foxes, usually have a blunt end and a tapered end to their scat. Raccoons tend to be blunt on both ends, and skunks tapered at both ends. It kind of looks like the end to the right might have been tapered, but hard to say.

Scat with grasshopper bits

Another clue to the animal is often the contents of the scat, if you can pick out some of the bits of the animal’s diet. One of the things that made this bit of scat noteworthy to me was all the bits of grasshopper visible in it, and specifically the thick “thighs” of the insects. In addition to the condition of the scat, the abundance of grasshopper material would suggest to me that the pile was probably from October or possibly early November, when the meadow was thick with the bugs and they’d make a really easy meal.

The mammal tracking book result suggested that dog scat often has large items such as bits of exoskeleton from insects in the scat, specifically mentioning grasshopper legs as a common item. That doesn’t necessarily rule out raccoons, however, as the latter are omnivorous and exoskeletons would probably pass through the digestive system of most predators. Skunks will also eat insects regularly. Really, with the incredible abundance of grasshoppers that were about in our meadow in the fall, I can’t see any opportunistic animal passing them up.

A final clue can sometimes be the number of scat piles in an area. Some mammals will return to the same area (called a latrine) repeatedly to poop. Raccoons and skunks are among these. There was just the one scat that I noticed, which may therefore also favour fox as the primary candidate, but doesn’t rule the others out – when you gotta go, you gotta go.

Raven might also have been a possibility, but I don’t think grasshoppers would have figured so heavily in her scat, even if she was catching a few.