Porcupine Species of New York (Upstate)

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Porcupines in New York

North American Porcupine

In the Americas, porcupines are tree-dwellers.

 arboreal porcupine

Porcupines are large rodents distinguished by their spiny fur. Comprised of twenty-three species around the world, they are divided into two distinct families: Hystricidae (Old World porcupines) and Erethizontidae (New World porcupines). Old World porcupines are generally larger, with robust bodies, large blunt snouts and quills grouped in clusters. The Old-Worlders are generally land-dwelling, as opposed to the New World porcupines of the Americas that are primarily arboreal (tree-dwelling). New World porcupines generally run smaller in size, have smaller heads in proportion to their bodies and have quills that are not grouped. In New York State we only have one resident species: The North American Porcupine.

The porcupine’s spines, or quills, have been subject to numerous misconceptions, many of which have turned this timid mammal into an aggressive and dangerous beast. The following facts about the porcupine’s sharp spines help to separate some of the myths from reality.

Quill Facts:

  • A porcupine has approximately 30,000 quills.
  • The quills are actually specialized hairs.
  • A porcupine’s quills are inter-dispersed with its normal hair.
  • The quills have a light, spongy center and are tipped with microscopic barbs.
  • Porcupine quills do not contain poison.
  • It is hypothesized that the quills are lightly-colored in contrast to the animal’s otherwise black fur in order to appear striking and serve as a visual warning to potential predators.
  • Quills from a single porcupine can vary in length. Shorter quills are usually found near the head, while longer quills (nearly 5 inches long) can be found at the rear of the animal.
  • Naturally, the quills point towards the back of the porcupine. This helps keep them from getting snagged when they pass through brush and climb trees.
  • Muscles attached to the quill follicles allow the porcupine to raise and lower them. When threatened, they raise their quills, making themselves appear larger while also “arming” the quills in case of attack.
  • Baby porcupines are born with soft spines, which harden within an hour. I’m sure mother porcupines appreciate this.
  • Porcupines evolved their sharp quills as a form of defense. They do not use them to hunt prey or attack other animals. Porcupines are timid and they primarily use their spines for defense.
  • When threatened and escape is not an option, the porcupine flips so its rear (and thus the longer spines) face the attacker. It may also shake its tail, which some say produces a soft rattling sound (this rattling is most likely teeth chattering). Porcupines may also jump towards an aggressor.
  • Porcupines do not shoot their quills. They do not have this capability. Physical contact with a porcupine is needed in order to be stuck with its quills.
  • Quills are easily detached from the porcupine when they impale an object.
  • Lost quills are replaced within a few months.
  • A patch of quills on the lower back grows atop a scent gland. When threatened, the porcupine can release a pungent odor.
  • Yes, porcupines can accidentally stick themselves. This usually happens if they fall out of a tree.
  • The best way to remove a porcupine quill is to simply pull it out. Be careful not to break the quills.
  • Porcupine quills have natural antibiotic coating, but after removing spines from you or your pet, washing and dressing the wounds are recommended.

Porcupine Books and Field Guides

Humane Capture / Control for Porcupines

North American Porcupine Guide

North American PorcupineNorth American PorcupineNorth American Porcupine

Porcupine stripped tree

A tree, stripped of its bark by a porcupine.

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North American Porcupine
(Erethizon dorsatum)

AKA: Common porcupine, Canadian porcupine

Identifying characteristics: A large, stout rodent with large bright-orange incisors. The fur is dark brown to black, mixed with longer cream-colored spines. The face is dark brown to black with a large blunt snout and large nostrils. The body is plump, the limbs are short, and the toes have long claws. They have 4 toes on the front paw, while the rear paw has a fifth (vestigial) thumb-like toe.

Size: The second largest rodent in North America. Average body length of 2 to 3 feet, weighing an average of 11 to 30 pounds. Males are generally larger than females.

Habitat: Coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests with plenty of cone-producing trees and ample ground cover. In New York, Porcupines spend the majority of their time in trees. The North American Porcupine is distributed across much of Canada and New England as well as Washington and California. In New York State, concentrations diminish the further west you go. Porcupines will nest in dens under rocks or logs or within hollow sections of trees. In the daytime they may rest in trees.

Feeding: Herbivore; feeding on bark, twigs, roots and other plant material. In spring they concentrate on budding maples. In summer they tend to strip tree bark to get at the soft cambium beneath. In the fall, their diets shift towards acorn and beech nuts, which are usually eaten directly off the trees. A good sign that a porcupine is in the area is a tree stripped of bark (usually higher than a beaver can reach).

Predators: Fishers, bobcats, coyotes, great horned owls, humans (both for food and also those struck by vehicles). Fishers are specialized porcupine predators. They attack from the front and flip the porcupine to get at the soft-furred underbelly.

Reproduction: Mating season is from October through November. Males will compete aggressively for a mate. They will bite and use their quills in quarrels that usually occur in trees. Mating, on the other hand, occurs on the ground. A peculiar mating ritual particular to porcupines is that the male will douse the female with urine prior to mating. Oddly enough, this is supposed to entice the female into pairing. Usually 1, but sometimes 2 offspring are born roughly 200 days later. The young stay with their mother for 5 months. Porcupines become sexually mature around the age of two.

Other Info.: Porcupines are nocturnal; usually solitary, but often den in groups up to 8. They do not hibernate, but will become less active in winter. Porcupines are slow and have poor eyesight, resulting in a lot of them getting squished while crossing roads.

Vocalization: Teeth chattering (when threatened); high-pitch grunts.

Porcupine sounds


Complete distribution

Found across the state with higher densities in the Adirondack region.

Status: common.


North American Porcupine

Look for alternating prints with large 5-toed hind prints and smaller 4-toed foreprints. Prints may overlap. The hind prints are just over 2 inches long on average, while the front prints rarely exceed two inches. A clear print may show a beaded texture to the paw pad. The claws are long. The stride is about 7-8 inches long. Porcupines tend to drag their spines (and tail) on the ground as they walk.

Other signs of porcupines

 Bark strippings, twigs, nut casings. Smooth trees with patches of missing bark is a good indication. Porcupines won’t inhabit the trees they feed on, but chances are they are close by.

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