Porcupines: Watchable wildlife, but a gardener's worst nightmare

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2003

Porcupines can provide uncommon chances to see a wild animal up close, but for some gardeners, a porcupine is worse than a thousand slugs.

Gardeners in Alaska contend with a variety of pests, but few are as devastating as a hungry porcupine. In the wild, these giant rodents eat buds and young green leaves, targeting the most tender and nutritious foods available. When they wander into towns they apply their well-developed sense of taste to gardens, ornamental trees and flower beds.

"They prefer raspberries over salmonberries," said gardener Susanne Williams of Douglas. "They come through and they sample things - they are true gourmets. They'll pull up carrots, take a few bites and leave them. They like greens, kale and the whole chard family. And they know what's ripe just before you do."

Two prizes for Alaska gardeners, raspberries and strawberries, are porcupine favorites, said Alaska Cooperative Extension Agent Jim Douglas. Porcupines will also climb trees and girdle them, stripping bark around the trunk and killing the tree. Because they are excellent climbers, fences are not much of a deterrent - especially once they discover a choice yard. Douglas said this spring a porcupine wiped out a number of gardens in his neighborhood - including his own.

"It did tremendous damage," he said. "You really don't want to just chase them off your property. They'll probably hit your neighbors or just come back. I'd recommend trapping and moving them. It's a good-neighbor policy to take care of them."

Wildlife biologist Neil Barten of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said his office in Douglas gets about a dozen calls a year regarding nuisance porcupines. Sometimes department personnel will relocate them; more often they authorize homeowners to capture and move them.

"Call Fish and Game," he said. "Technically it's not legal to just move them (yourself), but check and we can authorize the capture and relocation of a porcupine."

A porcupine can be captured in a live trap baited with fresh vegetables, but Douglas recommends the more direct snow-shovel-and-trash-can capture technique. Set an empty trash can over the trespassing rodent and carefully slide a snow shovel underneath it. When you feel the critter on the shovel, flip the whole thing over.

Douglas said some people just put the can in front of the animal and herd it in with a shovel or a broom. Watch the tail and the quills if you try this, though.

"They cannot throw their quills," Douglas said. "But they are quick enough that you could have a bunch of quills in your ankle."

The easiest way to get a porcupine out of a tree is with a garden hose.

"Don't knock it down, but if you irritate it with enough water it will come down the tree," Douglas said.

The Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game can recommend places to relocate the animals when a capture is authorized. That should be some distance away - studies have shown that porcupine can make their way back to a specific location from as far as 20 miles away.

Porcupines are found throughout most of Alaska, but many of the islands in Southeast, Southcentral and Western Alaska do not have porcupine.

"You don't want to take them out to some island, saying, 'By God, let them swim back,' " Douglas said. "You could infest the island."

Porcupine are good swimmers. Fish and Game watchable wildlife program coordinator Karla Hart has seen them in action in the water and once even saw a porcupine waddle into the Porcupine River and swim across.

"All those quills are like a life jacket," she said. "They float high in the water."

Hart said the docile, slow-moving porcupine ranks high as watchable wildlife.

"There aren't many animals you can get close to and watch their natural behaviors," she said. "Especially with young children."

Porcupine have poor eyesight, and although their hearing and sense of smell are good, it is possible to approach them - or let them approach you - and watch them at length without disturbing them.

Hart said she knows people in the Interior who eat porcupine. She said folks on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta consider it a delicacy and will travel upriver to forested areas to get them.

Wolves, coyotes and bear will sometimes take a porcupine, but the price of the meal can be high for a predator. A mouthful of quills can be fatal if it impairs an animal's ability to hunt or eat. A porcupine has about 30,000 quills, about 100 per square inch, mixed in with its woolly under fur and long guard hairs. The quills are specialized hairs, needle sharp, with microscopic barbs. When the quill is moist, as when it is imbedded in skin, the barbs swell. Not only does this anchor the quill, it pulls it deeper. Quills can migrate right through tissue, sometimes coming out the other side.

This spring the Juneau Community Garden is installing an electric fence to keep deer, beaver and porcupines out of the vegetables. Gardener Williams said the garden has been around about 10 years, and for most of that time a standard fence did a pretty good job of deterring hungry wildlife. The fence was breached a couple years ago, and before it was repaired porcupines discovered the garden plots. Since then they've been almost unstoppable.

Williams knows of a number of homeowners who have put electric fences around their gardens, particularly their raspberry patches.

"I don't mind porcupines at all," she said. "As long as they stay out of my vegetables."

Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For comments or questions, he can be reached at riley_woodford@fishgame.state.ak.us.



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