July 13, 2024


Creative meets living

Loud porcupines rescued from wildfire are heading home

When three porcupines showed up at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care with an array of injuries from last year’s Caldor Fire, and then another in January with a fractured clavicle, animal care director Denise Upton was befuddled.

“We’ve never, ever rehabbed four porcupines at one time,” Upton says. “We get one a season, maybe.”

Most Californians have never seen a wild porcupine. Largely nocturnal, the creatures spend a lot of time up in the trees and their population in this state is thought to be small, but there’s not much research out there about porcupines. Perhaps the biggest surprise in rescuing three was this: Porcupines can sometimes be quite noisy. Two of the porcupines in particular, whom the center nicknamed P2 and P3, had all kinds of things to say. P2 — a female with burned paws, scorched hair and a singed tail — was extremely vocal right away. 

As animal experts evaluated her, her protests sounded like someone blowing a kazoo.

“[P2] had no problem announcing her displeasure with her examination today,” a staff member posted on the center’s Instagram page along with video evidence. “… Don’t worry she isn’t being hurt. She is just wild and doesn’t like us.”

Within about a month, P3 — an older male with burned paws — had become even more outspoken. When staff members woke him to clean his cage, he seemed to be grumbling like a fussy old hermit. When eating carrots, he made “mmmm” sounds, like a human making a show of enjoying a meal. One day, P3 even had a conversation with a hidden camera.

“Ehhhhhhhhh. Ehhhhhh. Eh! Ehhhhhhh. Ehhhhhh. Ehh,” he says to the camera for unexplained reasons in an Instagram video. Upton knew then that she had a lot to learn.

As it turns out, these loud porcupines are not without precedent. Another porcupine from Texas, Teddy Bear, became a YouTube sensation in 2011 for his human-like sounds and love of corn. In a recent Facebook post in a private wildlife group, one user criticized porcupines for damaging trees when feeding on bark, and added, “They chew and talk to their selves, sounds like munchkins on acid in the forest.” 

But according to porcupine experts, the quilled rodents are not usually very noisy — at least not in nature. They do make loud sounds occasionally, but only for a few specific reasons, says retired Queens College biology professor Uldis Roze, who studied the creatures for much of his career and wrote the definitive book on the animal: “The North American Porcupine.”

Porcupine expert Uldis Roze starting studying the creatures decades ago after they began eating his house.

Porcupine expert Uldis Roze starting studying the creatures decades ago after they began eating his house.

Courtesy of Uldis Roze

“If it’s a young baby, it’ll call for its mother like a human child, and when a baby porcupine nurses, the mother and baby ‘sing’ to each other,” Roze says. “Another vocalization is in mating time when two males are competing for the same female. They fight, and the males scream. It’s like an ambulance siren through the forest. You hear it for a long distance. And then there’s the kind of irritated sound. It’s like, ‘eh, eh, eh!’”

When Roze makes the “eh” noise, he sounds strikingly similar to P2 and P3 in some of the Instagram posts. “That’s the sound of not wanting to be with the other guys,” Roze says. “It’s the sound that porcupines make when they’re in the den and another porcupine comes into the den, and they’re just kvetching all the time until one of them leaves.”

Porcupines are very solitary animals, he explains, largely spending their lives alone.

Roze became fascinated with porcupines back in the 1970s while building a cabin with his wife in the Catskills. The creatures started eating the plywood — an excellent source of sodium, he notes — and he began to wonder, “Why is this animal eating our house? What do we know about this animal?”

“I found out there wasn’t much known,” he says, “and I got drawn into a study of porcupines that lasted for decades.”

Roze admitted he wasn’t very familiar with California porcupines and suggested contacting a different expert — Cara Appel — to learn more about their distribution here and behavior during wildfires. Appel is a PhD student at Oregon State University who did her master’s research on porcupines at Cal Poly Humboldt, which included general research on their distribution and status in the northwestern United States.  

Asked about why the porcupine population is so small in California, she offers a disclaimer before answering: “Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in it, so most of what we know is more speculative,” she says.

But basically, in looking at historical records and distribution modeling across California, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and other western states, Appel found that porcupines were abundant in the region up until the mid-1900s. But they were eating saplings and damaging trees that were economically valuable.

“They were a big problem in the viewpoint of those who manage timberlands,” Appel says. For decades, there were concerted efforts to get rid of porcupines, including bounties, systematic poisoning and other control efforts, she continues, and their population declined precipitously.  

Porcupines spend much of their lives up in trees.

Porcupines spend much of their lives up in trees.

Courtesy of Cara Appel

Porcupines only reproduce once a year, giving birth to just one baby porcupine, and they also prefer to live at low density (remember the “ehhhhhhs”?). “So it takes a longer time for the populations to recover,” Appel says.

Meanwhile, predator populations have increased in areas where they live, she adds, and forestry practices have modified their habitat in ways that make it less attractive to herbivores. Porcupines do occasionally make appearances in places like Tolowa Dunes State Park, Yreka and the Sierra, but often it’s in the form of roadkill. Otherwise, they largely fly under the radar.  

In August 2021, the Caldor Fire changed that. The incredibly destructive fire burned through more than 200,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada, including parts of Christmas Valley in South Lake Tahoe. And in September, that’s where residents found all three porcupines, P1, P2 and P3, and reported them to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.

Porcupines are particularly ill-equipped to survive wildfires, say the experts, because they aren’t very quick and their escape of choice is to climb trees. They do sometimes have dens underground that could give them a little bit of protection, Appel says, but not extensive burrowing systems like other animals have.

P1 was in the worst condition of the three, with his eyes burned shut, his nose burned closed and all of his quills burned off. “He must have just rolled up to survive the flames,” staff from the center theorized in an Instagram post. P2’s quills were burned off her tail, her hair was singed and all four of her paws were burned, which required tilapia skin grafts, and P3 also had burned paws.

Upton herself handled that rescue, traveling to Christmas Valley to retrieve P3 from a concrete bunker he had crawled into. “With porcupines, if you want them to go right, they go left,” she says. “So I had to climb in there and convince him to come out.”

In taking care of other porcupines, including an “educational ambassador” named Porky whom she raised after his mother died, Upton learned that they like small places where they can feel safe. So she brought a pet carrier with a cover, making it look like a hidey hole.

She was then able to tap P3 on the butt (steering clear of his swishing tail) and usher him into the pet carrier. “So that’s wrangling a porcupine 101,” she says.

Over the past seven months, the three rescued porcupines have eaten their vegetables, their wounds have healed and their quills have grown back. P1 and P2 are again able to climb trees — which is a requirement for releasing them back to the wild. And earlier this week, the center bid a fond farewell to P1.