by Stan Tekiela
March 7, 2011
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
Please note the release of Remarkable Woodpecker. Also now available is Birds of Arkansas and Birds of Mississippi and Louisiana. Now available in stores or on line at www.adventurepublications.net or www.amazon.com
It has been a tough winter all across the US. Record setting cold temperatures and mountains of snow and ice have piled up everywhere. It seems no one was sparred this winter. At one point last month, every state in the nation with the exception of Florida had snow on the ground--including Hawaii. Which gets me thinking about how all the critters cope with severe winter weather.
Some species such as the Eastern Chipmunk are not affected at all. They are down in their burrows hibernating and they don't care if there is a raging blizzard outside or not. Bears are the same, along with Woodchucks. But there are plenty of other critters out there that are facing blowing snow and ridiculously low temperatures. Raccoons will hold up in a tree cavity or similar shelter for up to a couple weeks during the coldest part of winter. They are not hibernating, but rather simply laying low and out of the worst of the winter weather. Opossum will do the same to avoid getting frostbite ears and tails.
Foxes and Coyote need to get out and hunt nearly every day so they are impacted greatly by a thick blankets of snow and extreme temperatures. Moving through deep snow expends more energy and if this isn't replaced in the form of a nutritious meal they will start to lose weight. Lack of reserves means they become weaker which makes it even harder to trudge through the snow. It's a vicious downward circle that often leads to eventual death.
Porcupines are an example of a critter who seems to do well even in the coldest winter. This slow moving and solitary critter is found in a wide variety of habitats from conifer and deciduous forest to scrubland. Winter doesn't seem to bother them too much. They spend most of their time at the tops of trees where they feed on the soft bark of new branches. Snow doesn't cover they food source way up in the trees so they can do ok. The only time they have trouble with deep snow is when they move from tree to tree. If the snow is too deep they will have to negotiate the snow which means this normally slow animal is even slower getting from one tree to another. But once they make it to the new tree they are all set to go.
Porcupines are covered with over 30,000 barb-tipped guard hairs called quills. The quills are loosely attached to a sheet of muscle just beneath the skin. Most of these are concentrated in the back half of their body and especially their tail. Contrary to popular belief they cannot throw their quills. However I can see how this misconception started. In order to defend itself, the porcupine will quickly spin or turn away from its attacker using the tail as its main delivery system of the sharply pointed quills. If the quills come in contact with the attacker they will stick into the attacker making it appear that they were thrown.
The tip of each quill is tipped with many barbs. Some say that these barbs are heat activated and will expand when driven into warm skin making them very difficult to extract. You can imagine it would be difficult even for the porcupine to go around with all these sharp quills sticking out all over the place. A porcupine mother needs to be careful when around her young. I have seen baby porcupines with quills stuck in their noses from trying to snuggle up to their moms.
In spring the males will move about the forest floor checking the bases of trees for the scent of a breeding female. If you thought it was difficult for a baby porcupine to get close to its mother, you can imagine that mating would present with all sorts of hazards. Suffice to say, it works out and fortunately mother porcupines give birth to just one baby, making sure that the population continues on.
Baby porcupines are born head first with their eyes open. They are completely covered with fur along with quills at birth but the quills are soft and flexible. The quills dry and become stiff within a couple hours and the baby porcupine is fully protected. Until next time...
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com
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