What’s Up in that Tree?

Text and photo by Steve Cochrane

porcupine in tree
Porcupine sitting in the upper branches of a tree. © Steve Cochrane

Who knew porcupines climbed trees? This is the normal response when I take clients to view and photograph porcupines.

Winter and early spring, while trees are naked of their leaves, is an ideal time for spotting tree-dwelling porcupines. They commonly will move into the upper trees to eat and sun themselves. When a porcupine is hungry, they will move to the outermost branches to nibble newly budding twigs. During night hours or bad weather, the porcupine will supplement their diet with fruit and ground plants or shrubs.

Porcupine in Latin means “quill pig,” but when I look at a porcupine’s face, I think “quill monkey.” Porcupines have soft hair mixed with sharp quills all over their body except for their belly, face, and feet. On average, a porcupine has 30,000 quills. A misconception about porcupines is their ability to shoot their quills. The quills stand up when a porcupine feels threatened and detach easily when touched. The quills have barbs at the tips that detach when touched. When a porcupine loses a quill, it grows a new one. Baby porcupines are born with soft quills that harden within an hour. Baby porcupines can start climbing trees within hours of birth. Most babies will set off on their own within a few months of birth.

If you encounter a porcupine in the wild, don’t worry. As long as you don’t approach or touch them, they will leave you alone. The most likely victim of porcupines is the family dog that gets a nose full of quills.

The next time you’re walking among the trees, take a moment and look up. You might just see a bound-up ball of quills, nested in the highest branches.