Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Little that can be said good about porcupines.  A long time ago, when I lived in New Hampshire, they were thought so ill of up in that country that there was still a bounty on them.  I think the state paid only fifty cents, which isn’t a lot, but that fact that someone paid to have them killed tells you something. 
Foresters hate the critters because they eat the bark off of trees, often girdling the tree and hence killing it.  During the time that I worked as a logger, we always were careful not to leave the hose from the fuel tank hanging down too low or the porcupines would chew on it to get the salts our hands left behind.  There were stories about them chewing through tires and almost anything made of wood that human hands had touched.
Photo by Mark Laken
One time a friend named Don Pouliot and I hiked up to Stub Hill Pond to fish.  We left very early in the morning and then walked hard to get there before the sun climbed very high into the sky.  To this day I vividly remember how my lungs felt like there were going to burst on that hurried hike.  A friend of Don’s had offered us the use of his boat, a small pram that he towed up there during the winter time behind a snowmobile. When we reached the pond we found the pram upside down over two poles, which were tied between two stout fir trees, with the oars tucked neatly inside.  But one of the oars had been chewed enough by a porcupine to make it useless.  We rowed in circles that day and caught nothing.
My first bird dog, a Brittany spaniel named Zac, had a pronounced stubborn streak.  Twice he pointed porcupines, and let me tell you, porcupines hold really well for a point.  After a while though, when nothing happened, he swatted the critters with his paw, resulting in dozens of quills right through the foot.  On both of those occasions I had the help of friends to deal with the problem, and mostly they sat on the dog while I yanked the quills through.
One fall though, in a thick stand of alders where lush foliage cloaked the ground, Zac locked up on a rock solid point.  I assumed the dog pointed a bird, because it certainly looked like the right sort of place for a woodcock, so I walked with my gun ready and eyes ahead, expecting a woodcock to tweeter into the sky.  But instead of a bird flushing, my dog pounced on a porcupine and tried to bite it.  What a mess.  Quills were sticking out of everywhere.  Many went right up through from inside his mouth and out the top of his nose.
I took the dog to the vet that time and the dog was sedated before the quills were removed.  Months later, when I was scratching Zac’s nose, I felt a quill working its way up out of his nozzle.  Pliers yanked the thing out.
Back in those days, large trunks of dead yellow birch could be found in the woods.  I don’t recall seeing any during the last few years, but back then we called these things stubs.  Most stood maybe twenty or thirty feet tall, and two men together might put their arms around them, and all had lost their tops.  These enormous trunks were nearly always hollow, like a big chimney, with their red heartwood having rotted away.  Quite often there would be a hole at the bottom somewhere and almost always it would be piled high with porcupine poop, sometimes several feet deep, and a person could see where the dreadful rodent had tread over their own droppings as they came and went.  At times the ammonia smell of urine alerted me to these porcupine dens long before I saw them, and looking at the filthy mess you really didn’t want your dog to get quilled by an animal that disgustingly dirty.
About three years ago, while bird hunting, I found a stand of sugar maples where almost every tree for a hundred yards in every direction was chewed.  Not many were girdled, but some were, and many were badly wounded.  Two years ago my oldest GWP pointed a porcupine.  Walking up to the dog, I was able to heel her away unharmed.  Last fall my two wirehairs pointed side by side, while the porcupine tried to hide under a pile of bulldozed-up stumps.  Again, I heeled them both away.
One time I found a dead porcupine, turned almost completely inside out with most of the meat gone.  That puzzled me, but an old-time woodsman explained to me how a fisher cat could flip one over and kill it without getting quilled, and then eat the thing through the unprotected stomach.  Fishers must be fast, or very very hungry to try that.
Sitting on a knoll against a stump and waiting for deer one November, I heard something shuffling through the leaves.  Rising up slightly I could see it was a porcupine just off the crest of a rise.  Figuring that I would scare every deer for miles if I shot the thing, I let it pass.  It went about two hundred feet and then climbed the only hemlock in the stand of hardwoods where I sat.  I remember the claws making quite a racket on the way up the rough-barked tree.
When the animal got up among the limbs it started screaming and snarling loudly.  At that point my curiosity got me up on my feet and I figured every deer within a mile could hear the ruckus anyway.  About twenty-five feet up two large porcupines we looking down at me, obviously more afraid of me than they were angry at each other.  Was it two males fighting for territory?  Or was it their version of a marital disagreement?  Or two grown siblings quarreling over something? 
I will never know, but I do know that a .35 Remington makes a very effective porcupine cartridge, just make sure you know where they are going to fall.  The faces and front legs of both critters were filled with quills, obviously from fighting the other.  I can’t imagine how they would have ever removed the things.
The last time I saw a porcupine dead in the road it was on the Route 495 belt west of Boston.  And the one before that was on Route 9 out near Belchertown, MA.  It seems their range is expanding back into country where they haven’t been seen in years. 
Taking a cue from the people who train hunting dogs to ignore rattle snakes, a friend of mine shot a porcupine and when his dog showed interest in the animal he zapped the dog an e-collar at its highest setting.  I don’t think the dog has been quilled since then, but I don’t know how many porcupines it has encountered either.
If you hunt with dogs in porcupine country you should have needle nose pliers or forceps handy, as well as scissors or snips of some kind.  Immobilizing the dog is usually the hardest part of the task, so you may want to give it some thought ahead of time.  A big stick across the back of the mouth will hold the jaw open, and a large coat or blanket wrapped around the dog may keep it still.  The quills do come out easier if you snip them to let the air out, which makes them a little less rigid, and quills that pass through tissue are more easily removed by pulling them through.  Remember, there is a hook on the end that went in first and it wants to catch and tear on the way back out.  Liberal amounts of peroxide or some other disinfectant is good to wash the wounds out with.  It is always best to see a veterinarian, but often in the best bird country they are hours away.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Back from Grouse Country

     We just returned from a few days up north.  It’s been one of the mildest winters ever, with little snow cover or precipitation of any kind, so what usually would have been a weekend of snowshoeing turned out to be a weekend of hiking.  That’s fine.
In the woods there was snow
     Everywhere we hiked, we found ruffed grouse, or rather the dogs did.  Usually the birds were in clusters of two or three, and mostly along the edge of softwoods.  We did see three sitting up in a poplar right on Route…oh yes, I like to keep where I hunt secret!
     So it looks like a healthy number of grouse survived the winter.  Now comes the big wait, where we chew our nails and watch the weather.  When the young of the year hatch, we hope for dry weather until they get their feathers.  If the hatch is good this year, after the bumper crop of birds last year, this could be the year of a lifetime.
Colby on bird scent.
     Let us hope.