From My WindowIssue Date: September 13, 2017
Hell Hath No Fury
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
This summer, my family worked on a project to fix up my Mom's wooden back deck. It was due for staining, and some boards needed to be replaced " because of the very annoying and extensive damage done to them by porcupines.
This deck has been in place for five years or so, and did not come under attack until last fall. At first, we were puzzled by the damage to the board edges " suspecting some of her large "herd" of squirrels - red, grey and black. But our doubts grew with the scope of the damage, and as live-trap efforts failed, we finally decided the culprit had to be a porcupine. My brother bought metal edging for the deck and covered the favorite areas of the quilled devil, and it appeared this effort caused the vandal to move on. There was no further damage, so over the summer we removed the edging, replaced the wood and re-stained the deck.
The very next evening after project completion, big gouges were visible on the deck in the areas of fresh stain. My nephew had replaced the metal edging "just in case," so the rascal settled for chewing out big divots next to the edging in numerous places. It actually looked like someone with a wood chisel and hammer had been at work for a couple of hours, or a deranged beaver. We happened to be staying in her yard in our camper, so we left our windows open and hoped our dogs would alert us to the marauder as it visited but alas, it did not return to the lethal ambush we planned. My mother loves wildlife, but she has her limits, and they had been exceeded.
A few nights later, Mom was up in the middle of the night and heard a strange sound on the deck. She flipped on a deck light and stepped out the back door armed with a broom and there were two porcupines, hard at work chomping on her deck. Her frustration overruled her sense of caution, and she repeatedly pushed the animals off the deck with her broom, but they just lumbered back up and resumed chewing. So she began to swat at them with the broom, finally making them understand their presence was not welcome. Live and let live went by the wayside, and these rascals are lucky she used a broom. It could have been my father's shotgun which she unleashed when I was just a little girl on a hawk eating one of her favorite chickens in the back yard. (This was many, many years ago before raptor protection became the standard, which my entire family whole-heartedly supports.)
So the deck is again in need of board replacement, and staining after those age properly, our work over the summer apparently attracting the attention of her forest neighbors.
Porcupines are nocturnal so people do not see them very often. An adult can weigh as much as 30 pounds, large for a member of the rodent family. The only larger rodent in Wisconsin is the beaver. They are slow moving, and so their most noticeable feature, their "armor" of quills, is their defense. The only real predator they have is the fisher, a fur bearing mammal once almost totally wiped out in Wisconsin due to over-trapping. While the fishers have made a very modest recovery, there still aren't many of them, so porcupines are pretty much left alone. They are not very exciting to hunt, and as far as I know are not good to eat " nor, I could imagine, much fun to clean.
The quills are loosely attached to the hide of the animal, and when threatened, it erects its quills, turns its back to the threat and thrashes its tail from side to side. A porcupine cannot "shoot" quills " actual contact is required for the quill to attach but once it is attached, the barbed quills are both difficult and painful to remove. Many of you probably have a dog who has had an unfortunate encounter of this type " and once exposed, most dogs never again approach a porcupine. (Given an encounter of a pet dog with a skunk or a porcupine, having experienced both, I will take the skunk encounter. A skunked dog can be rehabilitated at home " a suffering dog with a face full of quills will end up at the veterinarians.)
Porcupines are vegetarians and eat greenery " in the winter that means evergreen needles, bark and buds of birch, pines, hemlock, and maples. The protein in this diet is only two to three percent so it is amazing they survive. In the summer they eat tender shoots, twigs, roots, seeds, and, if they can get at them, apples, potatoes, carrots and melons. They need sodium to rid their bodies of the high levels of potassium from their diet so they will attack axe handles, hoes, canoe paddles, gloves, and anything else with salty human sweat on it. My guess is Mom's deck was attractive because of the salt residue from winter de-icing.
So what good do porcupines do? Their tree-based diet creates dead limbs and tree trunks that become excellent homes for owls, wood ducks, and woodpeckers; and their winter feeding in the treetops causes branches to fall that become food for deer and other hungry non-climbing animals in the lean months. Besides that, they serve as a food source for fishers, an animal I've never seen but wish to help thrive in Wisconsin. (So if you are a porcupine hater, you should be a fisher supporter!) Like all creatures, porcupines were put on this land by the same creator who made us. They may serve ecosystem purposes we don't even understand, and they deserve our respect.
So I have advised Mom to get a salt block and put it under her deck. This non-lethal means of deterring the deck chewing may be a much cheaper fix than re-planking her deck every year. I'd prefer not to see her out in the dark lashing her nighttime visitors with a broom again; especially given the particularly impressive visit a black bear made to her yard not long ago. That resulted in the destruction of all her bird feeders, including a steel squirrel-proof feeder with impressive ease. A look at the crushed steel feeder is sobering.
Mom won't go out after the bear with her broom, but anything else better be careful. In another battle royale many years ago, she entered the chicken coop armed only with a water hose, found a skunk eating her chicks, and after a terrible fight, only one emerged alive. It was my mother. She didn't smell very good at all. Hell Hath No Fury like a woman protecting her chickens. Or deck.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.
Recent stories, opinions and photos