I have been feeding my family for many years on what I can harvest from the wild, whether it is plant or animal. With that said, while we will eat just about anything, I do have to admit that the porcupine is not at the top of my list of animals I pursue.
After coming clean on that issue, if we were out of food, or if this was an emergency survival situation, I would have no problem harvesting a porcupine or two. In an emergency situation, the pursuit of food is often based on risk and reward, on whether the energy expended is equal to or less than the amount of energy gained.
In the case of the porcupine, it is worth the effort. Anyone can take advantage of porcupines, as they are slow, have poor vision offset by very good hearing, and can be dispatched quickly with a stick. Their famous quills are 3 to 12 inches in length but they cannot be launched at attackers. In other words it is the ultimate survival meat source.
“ANYONE CAN TAKE ADVANTAGE OF PORCUPINES, AS THEY ARE SLOW, HAVE POOR VISION OFFSET BY VERY GOOD HEARING, AND CAN BE DISPATCHED QUICKLY WITH A STICK.”
The porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is the second-largest rodent found in North America, weighing 20 to 30 pounds and measuring 24 to 36 inches in overall length. Only the beaver is larger. While rodents are constantly being hunted (squirrels, woodchucks) or trapped (beaver and muskrat), many people don’t hunt porcupines, unless they are doing damage to their property and, honestly, very few of those people who harvest porcupines don’t treat them as a food source.
Porcupines are slow, easy to kill and loaded with fat, a much needed element in a survival situation, especially in the winter. That is why I consider it the perfect survival meat source.
Porcupines are mainly found throughout the mountains and forested areas of North America, areas where they can satisfy their herbivore tastes, namely twigs, leaves and bark. Based on their diet, their territory is limited to the mountainous and forested areas, leaving out the South and much of the Midwest but they can be found as far south as Mexico.
In areas where the porcupine is found, it is fed upon by many animals, but it seems that the only predator that actively feeds on the porcupine is the fisher. The spines of the porcupine, which are actually long, stiff, barbed guard hairs, are a capable deterrent to all but the hungriest predators. The fisher, which is a fairly large member of the weasel family, seems to be undeterred by the porcupine’s only defense: its spines.
HUMAN FOOD SOURCE
In our not so distant past, hunting was not like it is today. While in today’s world, where a vast majority of hunters pursue game as a sport, hunters of the past, and a few of us today, put food on the table by hunting.
Sport hunters spend millions of dollars every year to pursue large game (deer, elk, moose and bear). The meat hunter will take whatever presents itself and is legal to harvest. This means small game, which is the category the porcupine falls into, is the game that the survivalist will harvest.
“PORCUPINES ARE MAINLY FOUND THROUGHOUT THE MOUNTAINS AND FORESTED AREAS OF NORTH AMERICA, AREAS WHERE THEY CAN SATISFY THEIR HERBIVORE TASTES, NAMELY TWIGS, LEAVES AND BARK.”
You would think that porcupines were a common feature on the menus of Native Americans and early settlers but, surprisingly, they were not any more popular than any other game. With that said, there is evidence that there is a direct correlation between porcupine hunting and the time of the year. It seems that winter was the time of year when these animals were actively pursued.
Why, you may ask? There are a few reasons for this. First, during the warmer times of the year plenty of other game is available. While porcupines were taken, so were rabbits, deer, turkeys and a host of others. The second reason is that the colder times of the year are when porcupines are the largest and have the most fat.
Fat was a prized commodity, especially during the winter. A high-fat diet, particularly for those living an active lifestyle in a cold climate, is vital for survival. Another reason for the increase in porcupine harvesting is very simple: they are easy to hunt and during the winter, every meal is a valuable one.
For people, as well as animals, winter is the toughest time of the year. Just trying to stay warm forces you to burn calories at a more rapid rate. To sustain this calorie burn, your body needs to be fed regularly.
The only problem is that game is scarce during this time of the year and anyone who has ever hunted during the winter, in deep snow, knows how taxing it is to pursue the game that is there. The slow moving porcupine offers the ability to feed you and your family, while expending the least amount of energy in the process.
In the modern world the only people who actively pursue porcupines are those landowners where a large porcupine population has become an issue. This is especially true in areas where fishers have been reduced in numbers. Fishers feed on porcupines and in areas where there are no natural predators, the porcupine populations will increase.
Like all rodents, porcupines need to constantly chew on things to keep their teeth in check. Anything is fair game, including wooden handles on tools, sheds, houses and even wooden lawn furniture. It is because of the potential damage that these animals can do to property that many states have no closed season on porcupines.
Despite this, porcupines are not on the top of most hunters’ lists, and of the ones that are harvested, not many are consumed. As I never kill something that I don’t intend to eat, unless I have to, for me this is a terrible waste of a resource.
Like my ancestors, I am an opportunistic hunter, so I will usually harvest a porcupine if the opportunity presents itself. Most of my hunting takes place in the fall and winter. The only time I hunt in the warmer months is for early season turkey and when someone tells me that they are having issues with problem porcupines.
Come to find out, after asking other hunters, this is often the case.
My favorite firearm for hunting porcupine is a .22LR rifle, but in some cases carrying another rifle is not an option. If I am hunting squirrel or rabbit, this is not an issue as this is my firearm of choice for these animals, but if I am hunting large game or birds, lugging another long arm is not a practical option for me.
In those times I will carry a .22LR handgun. If you are living this lifestyle, then you need to learn how to adapt in order to take advantage of every opportunity; you may not get a second chance.
When hunting birds, my firearm of choice is my 12-gauge shotgun and when hunting large game I normally carry a .30-30 rifle. Neither is one I really want to use on a porcupine. This is where the sidearm comes into play, and it doesn’t matter whether it is a semi-automatic or a revolver.
The end results will be the same. That decision is up to the person using it. Use whatever you feel the most comfortable with.
While hunting, I move slow and stop often, looking and listening. I look on the ground and in the branches of the surrounding trees. I also don’t solely rely upon my eyes. My ears are just as valuable, perhaps even more so. Why? Because no animal is totally undetectable. They all make a sound or give themselves away in some form or another.
When hunting rabbits and hares, I use my eyes and look for their eyes. When hunting porcupines I use my ears. I listen for the animal’s constant chewing. It is a distinct sound and once you hear it you’ll be able to pick it out.
Another way to find porcupines is to look for where they have been and where they are denning. Here in New Hampshire, porcupines seem to prefer spruce and hemlock forests.
For this reason when I come to a stand of these trees, I pay close attention. I look for trees whose bark has been chewed. The chewing of the porcupines will leave little piles of wood chips on the ground, which are easily seen in the snow. I also look for droppings.
Porcupine droppings are about the size of jelly beans and are shaped like beans. These piles of droppings will be found at the base of a tree. If you find fresh wood chips and droppings in the same place, there is a good chance that if you look up you will find a porcupine.
If you have found all of the signs but still have not found the animal making them, what do you do? What I do is look for where the porcupine is holing up. New Hampshire, like most of northern New England, has no shortage of stone walls, remnants of early settlements.
The gaps between the old walls make perfect dens for porcupines. While that is all well and good, with hundreds, if not thousands of miles of stone walls crisscrossing the area, where do you begin your search?
Porcupines, like any other animal, will not travel too far from their food source. That means searching the area where their food is. It makes no sense in searching sections of walls that run through open fields and meadows, as that is not where porcupines will be found.
What I am looking for are droppings. Porcupines are extremely clean animals. They do not defecate in their homes. They are constantly pushing trash outside. When I find these piles of refuse, then I have found the den.
Unless I actually need to, I never take any animal in its den. What I do is record the info that I find and store it for later use. Chances are I will catch the porcupine in the trees sooner or later.
When it comes to survival, all bets are off. You need to do whatever you have to in order to keep you and your family alive. Sometimes that means eating things that have fallen off our spectrum in the modern world of grocery stores. And that includes porcupines.
Just like some people who throw back fish species such as eels and pickerel because they prefer to eat salmon and trout, people who spend all of their time hunting for deer need to take advantage of porcupines and other small game — squirrels, chipmunks and even mice have kept people alive in serious situations.
In a survival situation, you can’t be picky. Survival means changing your mindset and taking advantage of every opportunity that may present itself.
Will you take a porcupine every time you go out? Of course not. Should you devote your time solely to harvesting porcupine? Again, of course not, and in fact, you are a fool if you do. Should you be prepared to harvest these animals if you happen to find one? Absolutely.
The goal in any survival situation is to stay alive. Part of that process is to secure food, whether it was what you were looking for or not. Harvesting porcupines is just one of many ways to do that.
Preparing a porcupine for the table is not rocket science. Like with everything else, there are thousands of recipes out there, so I will not bore you with mine. Just remember that porcupines can be prepared in the same manner you would prepare squirrels or rabbits. My favorite way is in a stew, but they also can be fried or baked. The real trick is dealing with the quills.
Remember that the quills are just guard hairs and as long as you don’t rub your hand against the grain, you won’t get stuck. As an added precaution, unless you intend to save the quills, many people like to singe the hair before cleaning. It is your choice.
USE THE QUILLS
Many Native American peoples used porcupine quills in decorative work. Good quillwork is highly prized and a unique skill. The quills were used to adorn clothing and even worked into baskets.
The more elaborate the quillwork, the higher the status of the maker and owner. Being a form of hair, quills are hollow so they will absorb dyes, just as human hair does. Using natural dyes, Native Americans could produce quills of just about any color desired.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.