Consider ye the porcupine of the woods; they scurry not, neither do they congregate.
But these many-quilled, solitary, nocturnal, near-sighted plodding mammals are marvels of pure defensive evolution.
And, slowly, they’re spreading down from the state’s Northwest Corner toward Fairfield County towns, there to lick anything salty, enchant those with a taste for the singular, and teach the family dog the mistake of charging too fast into the fray.
Amanda Branson, executive director of the Naromi Land Trust in Sherman, said there’s evidence of porcupines in the trust’s Herrick Preserve, in the northern part of town near the Appalachian Trail.
“I can say they’re in Kent, 100 percent,” Branson said. “Because my dogs have been porcupined there three times.”
Diane Swanson, executive director of the Pratt Nature Center in New Milford, said hikers have reported seeing a porcupine on the center’s trails.
“It’s one of the animals I haven’t seen here yet,” Swanson said. “But they definitely live here.”
But the nature preserve at the Westside campus of Western Connecticut State University in Danbury is, at present, porcupine-less.
“Never,” said Frank Dye, emeritus professor of biology at Western and guiding light pf the preserve, when asked if he’d ever seen a porcupine there. “But I would definitely be delighted to see one.”
Gerri Griswold is the director of administration of White Memorial Foundation, the 4,000-acre nature preserve in Litchfield.
“On the rarest of occasions, we’ve seen signs of them here,” Griswold said. “Most people don’t realize they live here.”
Porcupines in Connecticut are North American porcupines, to differentiate them from their South American cousins. Their Latin name — Erethizon dorsatum — can be loosely translated as “the animal with the irritating back.’’
They’re a member of the rodent family, second in size only to the beaver. They can weight up to 30 pounds and live for 20 years or so in the wild. They’re found throughout the United States and Canada, south to Mexico.
They’re comeback kids. By the early 20th century, they were mostly gone from Connecticut. They’re woodland dwellers and much of the state had been deforested for farming. In 1935, naturalist G.C. Goodwin wrote that “for many years, they have been practically unheard of in Connecticut.”
Abandoned fields became forests. And slowly, porcupines returned to the state.
“They came to the state from New York and Massachusetts,” said Jenny Dickson, director of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s wildlife division.
After finding a home in towns such as Colebrook and Norfolk, they’ve begun to spread south.
“They are definitely doing well,” Dickson said.
But that spread is slow. Porcupines waddle and don’t dodge cars like squirrels. They’re prey for black bears, coyotes, fishers and great horned owls. And, unlike others rodents, they’re not good at the fruitfulness thing.
“They only have one pup a year,” Dickson said. (How do they mate? Very carefully.)
But said Griswold — who is a licensed animal rehabilitator and is, admittedly, a quill-waver when it comes to porcupines — said she sees them regularly near her home in Winchester.
“They are just the coolest animals,” she said.
Why way cool?
To begin with, each porcupine comes equipped with about 30,000 quills — hollow, barbed little lances that cover their back, sides and strong tails. They don’t hurl them but the quills can come loose easily, so that any animal that lunges at a porcupine is likely to retreat with a snout full of quills. If it’s a dog, it also means a trip to the vet.
When threatened, porcupines also emit an odor that’s been compared to really bad BO or stinky cheese.
They are largely solitary herbivores, who go it alone, rather than running with the herd or flock. They feed on buds and roots and berries in summer, evergreen needles and tree bark in winter. The can be selective, like a mouse in a maze remembering where to find a food pellet.
“Each female has a 50-acre territory and they can remember which tree has their favorite food,” Griswold said. “They have wonderful memories.”
Like skunks, they are black and white, the better to signal at night to would-be predators to steer clear. They can be noisy, with a repertoire of coughs, whines, and mewling shrieks. Baby porcupines are, cutely, called porcupettes.
All in all, Griswold said, they are a source of wonder.
“It is so fascinating,” she said. “They’ve come up with the most unusual adaptations to survive.”