When I first moved to Kansas, someone told me there had once been a naval base near Hutchinson. My response to that was “Ya, right!” (They neglected to tell me it was a naval AIR base!) Then a few years later I was told there were porcupines in Kansas and again my response was a resounding “Ya right!”
I talked with local veterinarian Becky Dillon, who told me that starting about a dozen years ago, she began seeing two or three dogs annually from the Rice, Reno, and McPherson County area impaled with porcupine quills, usually in their noses. I once helped extract a porky’ from under a friend’s porch. After removing several floor boards and backing the bugger’ into a corner, we were able to pull it out it with catch pole. While in western Kansas a few years back we came upon a dead porcupine along the road. After carefully gathering a few quills from the middle of its back and cutting off part of its unique hind foot that strongly resembled a bear’s foot, we left the poor guy looking like the victim of some satanical ritual.
Porcupines occur throughout the state, except in the southeast. They are very common in the Red Hills down in Barber and Comanche counties. They prefer woodlands, but in Kansas, are found most often in “riparian habitat,” the wooded and brushy areas bordering streams and rivers. Porcupines are herbivores (plant eaters,) so in summer, green plants make up much of their diet. During winter, they often gnaw on bark and cambium, the soft inner tissue of woody plants and trees. I’m told it not uncommon to find cedars killed by porcupines “girdling” the trunk as they gnaw off the bark completely around the tree. They also seem to relish the soft, tender bark of cottonwood trees.
My research turned up several interesting facts about “porkys.” I know I’ve heard or read stories about porcupines chewing on axe handles, canoe paddles, etc. They have a penchant for salt, and chew on these things because of the sweat left there by human hands. Porcupines are rather cute little members of the rodent family. Adults grow to around twenty inches long, minus they tail, and can weigh 25 pounds. Like our other migrant friend, the armadillo, a porcupine’s sense of smell is excellent, but its eyesight is poor. Normally quiet and docile little critters, they are most at home resting in a tree, so we all may have passed beneath one more than once and never known it. Their dens can be in rock crevices, hollow logs, or under old buildings, and they are known to use the abandoned dens of other animals. They breed once yearly, and usually give birth to only one offspring. Officially called “porcupettes,” the baby’s quills are soft at birth (I should hope so,) but harden within an hour. A porcupine’s hollow quills help make them excellent swimmers, so water lilies and floating pond weeds can also be part of their summer diet.
Of course, this piece wouldn’t be complete without time spent on our rodent’s most famous characteristic, its quills. A fully-grown adult porcupine has upwards of 30,000 specially modified hairs called quills, which are its first line of defense. The quills are mixed with long shaggy hair everywhere but on its stomach. They are longest on the rump and tail, so when threatened, a porcupine points its posterior towards the attacker and begins slashing with its long tail. The quills come out very easily, so any piece of flesh touched by the sweeping rump and tail comes away stuck full of them. This behavior no doubt gave rise to the legend that a porcupine could “throw” its quills. With the tiny barbs embedded, the body heat of the unlucky recipient swells the quills, forcing them deeper into its flesh. Although nearly invisible to the naked eye, Dillon says these barbs are so effective that she has to sedate each animal because they are so painful to remove. The Fisher, a fur bearer of the north woods, has become an expert in attacking porcupines, learning how to roll them over and get at their unprotected bellies. Great horned owls, bobcats and coyotes, all predators of the Kansas plains, will also make a meal of a porcupine if the opportunity arises.
I continue to be amazed at the diversity of God’s creation found here in our state. You can bet that from now on when I’m in the woods and along the river, I’ll be looking for signs of “Mr. Prickly,” hoping to see one alive in the wild. Another good reason for Exploring Kansas Outdoors!
Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected]