Roadkill lesson’s – Signs O’ the Times
written November 2022
The right to “wool” bears.
So, this post was originally purported to focus on woolly bear caterpillars. You know woolly bears, those black and orangey-reddish banded caterpillars that are fuzzy and whose coloration pattern is purported to predict winter severity. A “poor-(hu)man’s Punxsutawney Phil” if you will.
As the month of September ended and October began to take shape, it became clear that October is a month made for porcupines—woolly bears can wait. We’ll get back to them when their story really takes off (around mid-winter). For now, it’s all about porcupines.
First, let’s take a step back. This here story started out in early October when my bicycle was tuned for the first time in a long time, allowing me to get “back on the pedal.”
I find that nature observing by bike is a nice pace for continual nature observations. While biking, there’s plenty of opportunity to listen, see, and stop safely along the way. Whether biking is actually good for me (physically, psychologically, and spiritually) or not is beside the point—I bike for transportation and observation, plain and simple.
Something you can’t help but notice when road biking is roadkill. And for the record, we here at Nature Bummin’ (me) believe that all roadkill is sad. I’ve never come across roadkill and thought, “sweet! I finally get to see a lynx,” or anything like that. I find no thrill in crossing paths with a deceased critter splattered on the road—as opposed to when I find animal remains in the woods (usually unsplattered).
Don’t get me wrong, you can see mega-fauna roadkill while going 55mph—and there is a wonderful Zen to observing at 55 mph—but that only gives you a small taste of the lessons that lie motionless on the roadside. After seeing thousands of roadkill over the years, it feels only natural (maybe) that I may appear a little numb to the situation.
Roadkill is not something I actively search for, but I’ve come to appreciate what I’m able to learn from these unfortunate events. Making the most out of an unfortunate situation? Call it opportunistic learning!
This brings me back to woolly bears. On an early October bike ride from St. George to Rockland, woolly bears were #1 in two categories as far as I could tell. First off, they were by far the most numerous roadkill on the ol’ ‘131 to Kinney Woods Road to 73’ route. And second, they were also the most numerous living critters on the road that I saw that day—it appeared they were trying to actively become roadkill, but that’s a story for another time.
The second most numerous roadkill that day (I know you were waiting for this) was porcupine! (Third went to preying mantii, not that you asked or care).
On a bike, you get a closer view of the old, dried-up animal corpses that dot the edge of roads than say if you were in a car. And there were a couple dried up porcupine corpses on this pedal for sure. I only include one photo of this kind of roadkill they are far less gory compared to the recently killed or “freshies” as I will refer to them from here on out.
Seeing the old, random dried roadkill porcupine is standard for the roughly 11-mile pedal, but for there to be an old, dried animal corpse in the road, you’ll inevitably come across some freshies now and again. And that’s where the lessons really started.
You see, on this morning ride there were THREE freshly road killed porcupines (total bloodbath), and I can say with confidence they were not there a few days before. I’d like to note that I’m not the only one who notes fresh roadkill of any species on my way to work and then watches as the corpse changes shape and sometimes location as days and weeks go by. That is the transition from freshie to old and dried up.
If you are with me in the car, you might hear me mutter, “big week for skunks,” “lot of raccoon movement last night,” or “that deer lost that battle,” as we bounce down the road. And while porcupines are easy targets on the road any time of the year, three or four freshies so close together made me think maybe something was going on with the local porcupines. Just maybe.
This isn’t the first porcupine post for Nature Bummin’. The previous post was from winter 2022, it was called “What’s Your Favorite (Porcu)sign?”, and it’s full of porcupine tracking tips—so I don’t have to go over all that stuff again. But I will use one word from that post right now. And that word is “quills”.
In my experience, the three porcupine signs that I’m more likely to find on a walk are scat, twig clippings, and tree bark chews. Each of these are cool in that, when found on the ground or low on a tree, there is a chance that the porcupine is still up in the tree—all you have to do is look up.
Quills are the most charming of the porcupine sign to find though (personal opinion). Look for them on fallen and chewed apples. They sometimes are dislodged from a porcupines’ face during feasting. Or maybe you’ll find them stuck in a hallow log—as if a porcupine had to back out of the log and bumped into wall. In my mind, those are charming moments captured by quills. But that’s just me.
Piles of porcupine quills
However, twice now on Clark Island in St. George, I have come across what I call “piles of porcupine quills”. Disturbance was evident around these quill piles in the spots cleared of leaves and twigs—maybe from tail or body drags, and the quills were many. An epic battle had occurred at these spots—even if only for a few minutes—and both times my mind went straight to fishers. That’s where my mind usually goes when it wanders.
But this was not a “case of a wandering mind”. Fishers are the most famous predator of porcupines and I had tracked and seen them on Clark Island Preserve before. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of quills on the ground so I figured it probably wasn’t from a chance dog interaction (those tend to be short and sweet; I naively believe).
So, if it was from a fisher interaction there had to be an unsquashed carcass nearby. With that in mind, I set out looking for a bloody mess or even just a skinned porcupine hide… I wasn’t asking for much.
Both times I found nothing, leading me to believe that the fisher either dragged the porcupine way off trail to feast or that the battle wasn’t completely over, and it moved into the woods somewhere. I mean really, how far does a fisher want to drag a porcupine anyway?
Certainly, somewhere out there were the remains of this epic battle. There just had to be. Unfortunately, my dream of finding a skillfully skinned porcupine hide would have to wait.
Otters and Porcupines
It’s no secret that trail cameras are one of my favorite nature observation tools. Motion triggered cameras capture lessons about what is out and about in an area while I am resting warmly at home. The laziest tool, which makes it even more perfect.
There are lots of good places to put a camera—animal latrines, compost piles, carcasses—but probably my favorite place for a camera is along a game trail. The videos taken are often of animals moving quickly along, but since almost all wildlife trails are used by multiple species you never know who or what might trigger your camera.
Take this porcupine video for example:
The camera was placed on a heavily used river otter trail where I was getting lots of river otter videos. Some of the coolest videos, however, were the “by-catch” —American woodcock, rufted grouse, and this porcupine who decided to plop right down in front of the camera. Wildlife I didn’t realize used the river otter trails were showing up and plopping down directly in front of the camera. Maybe I should stop calling them “otter trails”. That would make sense.
And so, in mid-October I noticed an uptick in porcupine activity on some of my otter cameras. They seemed to be moving around, being active (not just sitting) more so than the cameras had picked up before. And it coincided (roughly and loosely) with the increase in roadkill porcupine. Was something up?
Videos can’t lie unless they are edited, and in those cases- yes, videos can lie
A closer look at the trail camera captures turned up a couple of interesting videos.
One featured a smaller, dark porcupine following a trail and approaching the camera. The porcupine stops, hesitates, and then turns and retreats with a burst of energy. As a trail camera guy who is concerned with the impact that such a seemingly low impactful tool might have on its subjects, I found this disturbing. Had the porcupine heard the camera make a noise or maybe smelled me on the camera (I smell like roses by the way) and become alarmed by this foreign smell or sound and retreated? Humans stink even when we are not there! Am I part of the problem?
While my concerns were noble and a vague attempt at being self-aware, my thoughts turned out to be a little too human-centric in reality. I was far off, as the last video shows…
Moments after the first porcupine retreated. You can still see the original porker leaving as two other porcupines come trotting in. Three porcupines in one video felt like a lot, but that wasn’t the whole picture captured in the clip.
If you look closely, the last porcupine to come into view has something dangling between his hind legs as he hops over the branch on the ground. Without going into too much detail I’ll just refer to that porcupine as a male from here on out.
What’s more, the male and female that stroll into view pause behind a small tree. They pause to mate! Watch the video closely, and it’s not creepy to watch it closely! (I’ve almost convinced myself of that.)
So that answers a lot of things—it’s mating season! I do believe that is the first time I have caught mating of any species on a trail camera, which is not like an historic moment for me as much as an historic moment for the porcupines! And so, my camera (and thus me) wasn’t part of the problem at all!
No Porcupines on Vinalhaven
Since moving to the mainland in 2015, porcupines have become a regular part of my nature observing, but we all know “we know what we know.” And I’ll be honest that I don’t know a lot about porcupine natural history. Not nearly as much as I know about otters, fishers and bobcats. I play favorites. And while I do like seeing porcupines and their sign, they are not predators and they never will be (sorry Charlie).
I always figured that eventually, something would trigger a turning point for me with porcupines. For most of my life, the porcupine chapters in my favorite tracking books and field guides have gone largely unread. That is, until now. October is porcupine time, this is the turning point!
“Oh, so you see something and then go back and look it up…”
With this mind I cracked open my favorite North America mammal book “The Peterson Reference Guide, Behavior of North American Mammals” by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart. Looking at the porcupine “courtship and mating” section I was eager to soak in all the behavior knowledge I could. And I was pleased with what I found.
“Often a male will arrive before the female is receptive to mating and he will have to guard her from competitors. Typically perched on a lower branch than she in the same tree, he fights off other males that attempt to ascend the tree trunk. Males around an estrous female may be seen with scores of quills jammed in their snouts, and the torn-up ground littered with thousands of shed and bitten quills testify to their battles for breeding access. Successful males must be able to repel all challengers over a long period, and they tend to be older, larger, and more densely quilled than other males.”
Okay now, that explains a lot about the piles of quills and the disturbed ground. I love it when guides nail it like that. That paragraph was perfect, just what I was looking for. I also learned about how porcupines use urine during courtship, of which information I will pass on sharing (but you are welcome to look up), and let’s just say that porcupines are funky rodents. No need to ban this book though, it’s natural.
So, there were a lot of lessons here for me, very few of which came directly from the roadkill scene, but roadkill did play a roll. What would get porcupines wandering the roads in numbers suddenly? The same thing that makes wood frogs hop across Rte. 131 each March or gets fisher treed four days in a row in the same yard. Simply put, the potential for mating. It’s all about the potential.
So maybe the lessons came from quills and videos as well as roadkill. Nice mix there really. Certainly, a certain amount of luck was involved in finding the porcupine battle zones (good thing I was looking down) and a then a ton of luck in having porcupines’ mate on camera!
Roadkill lessons on the other hand come from a different kind of luck… “bad luck” for the male porkers on the side of the road. An unfortunate sign of the times, but a sign none-the-less.
It’s the road.
We’ll see you out there!
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