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It’s Possible to Pursue Porcupines in PA

September 13, 2017
By COL(Ret.) Grey D. Berrier II , Ohio Valley Outdoors

Question: "How do you know a train came by here?"

Answer: "Because it left its tracks!" I don't know about you, but when I was a young boy, I'm talking early elementary school age, I heard some pretty corny jokes and riddles from my adult family members. My great uncle, Knox Fisher, was an engineer for the Penn Central Railroad, so I endured his favorite train joke numerous times when we approached a railroad crossing or walked along the railroad tracks. Even as a 6 or 7-year-old, I was thinking: "Uncle Knox, those steel rails spiked down to railroad ties make it pretty obvious a train came through here at some point in time." While that thought may have crossed my mind, I never verbalized it for fear of being disrespectful and simply politely laughed at his joke each time he brought it up.

I share that story because similar to how railroad tracks provide clear evidence a train came through, physical evidence is constantly being left out in the woods documenting a particular wildlife species was present at some point, if you know what to look for. For instance, if we were to go for a walk in Pennsylvania's "Big Woods", somewhere north of Interstate 80 anywhere between Barkeyville (Exit 29) and White Deer (Exit 210), there is a very high probability you will observer some strangely disfigured trees.

Article Photos

To help with the ongoing porcupine-problems property owners were experiencing in Pennsyvlania, the PA Game Commission introduced a porcupine hunting season in 2011. The season opened September 1 and runs through March 31, 2018. Photo by Grey D. Berrier II

These particular trees, often wild black cherry, will have what appear to be gnarly knobs or scabbed over knee caps growing anywhere from 8-feet up to 40-feet in the air. To the casual observer, it may appear that those trees have some sort of disease. Quite the opposite, the trees with the strange growths are strong survivors. They have withstood a porcupine eating their bark and the "scabs" are the tree's efforts to heal their wounds. Unfortunately, if a porcupine eats the bark completely around the circumference of a tree, girdling it, the tree becomes incapable of getting water and nutrients to the leaves and branches above that point and that portion of the tree will die.

While walking in "porcupine country", you will occasionally observe a tree that has just recently had its outer bark consumed, since the lighter-colored inner bark (phloem) or vascular cambium will be exposed. The damaged band often sticks out in stark contrast to the darker colors predominant in the woods. Only a handful of times over the years, have I come across Mr. or Mrs. Porcupine actively eating away at a tree overhead, since they are primarily nocturnal. Another distinct sign of porcupine activity is their scat or droppings. Commonly found underneath a tree where they were eating or more frequently near the entrance to their den under rocks or in a hollow log, their scat is approximately an inch or so long, oblong in shape, slightly curved, and based on their woody diet, has a packed sawdust-like consistency. While deer droppings are normally black, porcupine "poop" is typically a lighter brown to tan color and somewhat resembles the wood pellets that fuel a pellet stove.

Based on my prior reading and formal survival training, I was always instructed to just leave porcupines alone when hiking or hunting, and you have dependable food provisions. The logic being, porcupines are the ideal "survival protein source" since they are slow moving, have poor eyesight, and can be readily harvested with either a club or rock, if necessary. The "woods wisdom" was to always leave porcupines alone for the next guy or gal who may be starving and really need to kill something in order to eat and survive.

While the literature may say to give porcupines a free pass, the facts are their actions when they come in contact with manmade objects can be quite destructive. Their diet consists primarily of leaves, twigs, bark, and other plant material. Nutritionally, this means they are ingesting a high potassium/low sodium diet and translates into an inherent lifelong craving for salt. This is why you hear stories of porcupines gnawing on wooden canoe paddles, axe handles, and even gunstocks that are left lying around camp. Those particular items are sweat-infused from human contact and become a potential source of salt for a wandering porcupine.

Another troublesome habit that residents who live or have camps in porcupine-country become familiar with and have to endure is their affinity for plywood and chipboard. Apparently, the glue used to bond these building materials together contains sodium and porcupines are attracted to it as a source of necessary salt. Many property owners have unfortunately found the walls or floors of their garage, shed, outhouse, or camp have been gnawed away by porcupines. If the property has been left vacant for several weeks or months, like is typical with hunting camps, the porcupine-chewed damage can be quite extensive and very costly.

Based on the 30,000 prickly quills covering a porcupine's body, they have very few natural predators. While a very hungry black bear, coyote, or bobcat make take an occasional porcupine, their predominant predators are fishers. Fishers are larger members of the weasel family that were reintroduced into PA starting back in 1994 in hopes of curtailing the porcupine numbers. While the fisher population has expanded to the point where there is now a regulated fisher trapping season in PA, they have not decreased the porcupine population to the point that human/porcupine conflicts are eliminated.

To help with the ongoing porcupine-problems property owners were experiencing and to aid in managing the statewide porcupine population, the PA Game Commission introduced a porcupine hunting season back in 2011. Now entering its seventh year, many PA resident hunters and most PA nonresident hunters are not aware a porcupine hunting season exists in the Keystone State. Porcupine season recently opened on September 1, 2017 and runs through March 31, 2018.

While the porcupine was recently classified as a furbearer by the PA Game Commission for management purposes, like coyotes, it can be legally hunted with either a hunting or furtaker license. However, porcupines can only be hunted Monday through Saturday with Sunday hunting prohibited. The daily limit is three porcupines and there is a season limit of 10 porcupines. Legal hunting methods include manually-operated or semi-automatic rifles (any caliber), manually-operated handguns, shotguns using not larger than #4 buckshot, archery equipment (compound bows, crossbows, recurve bows, or longbows), and air or gas-operated firearms at least 22-caliber.

There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the porcupine. They cannot shoot or fire their quills. A human or animal has to make physical contact with a quill in order for it to release from the porcupine's body. They are not aggressive, but will go into a proactive defensive posture, hiding their vulnerable undersides, and thrashing their tail at a would-be attacker. It's not a bad idea to carry a Leatherman-like tool or a pair of pliers along, if hunting or hiking in porcupine country with a dog, to help in potential quill removal. Additionally, you'll want to keep an out for porcupines for roadways, if traveling in PA's "Big Woods", since a road-killed porcupine's quills have the potential to flatten a vehicle tire.

Maybe you're looking to hunt something new or potentially looking for a unique specimen to add to your taxidermy mount collection. Possibly, you're looking to help out property owners who are suffering porcupine-induced damage (much like hunters help farmers by harvesting groundhogs). Then there's always the option to try eating a porcupine before you're in a survival situation to know how to properly eviscerate one, prepare it, and find out what it tastes like. Whatever your rationale, it's worth knowing you can now pursue porcupines in PA, if you are so inclined.



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