October 7, 2009, GateHouse News Service: Cheryl Miller: Settling the great porcupine debate

Cheryl Miller

GateHouse News Service
Posted Oct 07, 2009 @ 12:28 PM

One evening last November, my husband and I were driving to meet my dad for dinner when we passed a dead animal on the side of the road. It was dusk, and we were traveling at 55 miles per hour. I gave the dark lump only a cursory glance, just long enough to affirm by shape that it was not somebody’s beloved cat or dog....

My husband, on the other hand, swiveled his head in excited disbelief. “Did you see that? It was a porcupine! Didn’t you see the quills? They were sticking out all over his back!”

Now, this is a man who once professed that he saw a man in a Carhart jacket skulking through the field behind our house one summer dawn; the brown-jacketed hominid turned out to be our neighbor’s horse, moseying down to the pond for a drink. While it is true that this incident occurred many years ago, and his near-sightedness corrected as he aged, I am nevertheless sometimes suspicious of his visual acuity. 

I was pretty sure there are no porcupines where we live, and I told him so. 

Naturally, the topic came up at dinner a few minutes later. My father, erstwhile farm boy and small-game hunter, has stalked the woods and fields of Upstate New York since Roosevelt introduced withholding taxes in 1943.

“Have you ever seen a porcupine here, alive or dead?” I asked. Nope, he never had, “but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.”

We resolved to return to the scene on the way home to verify the identity. If we were lucky, it would still be there, unless some other eagle-eyed driver spotted it and carried it off while we dined (porcupine quills being highly desirable, of course, for decorating wampum belts, moccasins and Carhart jackets).

After dinner, we drove back to the spot in the road, and there in the high beams was … a perfectly proportioned lump of manure, pierced all over with stems of straw, looking very much like a porcupine. We laughed all the way home.

Our interest piqued, we looked online to learn if and where porcupines live in New York state; sources named Allegany State Park to our southwest, the Catskills southeast of us, and the Adirondacks to the east-northeast. 

The search also turned up an interesting book, “Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways” by Roger M. Knutson. The professor writes, “Often a specimen will mimic a clump of dirt with dark straw extending out in all directions.” (Oh, really?)

The author also informs that an adult Orethizon dorsatum, at 30 pounds, is “the largest animal that can be flattened on most road surfaces.” (Flattened dimensions are 20-by-14 inches with a 10-inch long-haired tail. The book is illustrated with silhouettes of 36 most common flattened fauna.) 

To tell the truth, I was briefly sad to learn that porcupines don’t live here. It is a myth that they can shoot their quills into predators; they are peaceable animals, spending most of their time eating bark up in the treetops, and they’d be ever such fun to watch. No matter that they often girdle trees and eat wooden structures, such as my house and garage.

This past week my husband met one of his cronies for breakfast. Upon his return, he burst through the doorway and exhorted, “Guess what’s dead in the road about a mile from here!”

I ran through the litany: Deer? Opossum? Raccoon? Coyote? Cat? Dog? 

He drove me to see the porcupine that doesn’t live in these parts. Widow porcupine and her babies are doubtless nearby, waiting for a taste of cedar siding.

Messenger Post contributor and Macedon, N.Y., resident Cheryl Miller enjoys reading, writing, gardening, painting, photography and her pets. E-mail her at Fortuna_ [email protected].

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