Porcupine © Lisa Strout
Porcupine © Lisa Strout

Porcupines, well known for the quills which are their primary means of defense, are the second largest rodent in North America after the American beaver. Porcupines are common in central and western Massachusetts, less so in the eastern part of the state.


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Porcupine courtship is elaborate and noisy. When the female comes into estrus (heat) in late fall, her scent can attract numerous suitors who may fight for hours to win her favor. The female gives birth after seven months—a long time for a small mammal—and her single young is born well-developed, with quills that harden within an hour of birth.

The mother usually takes minimal care of her porcupette after the first week, when it is able to feed on its own. The porcupette eventually leaves its mother after six months.


Porcupines are normally shy and solitary creatures (meaning you are unlikely to find one near your house), but in winter they may den in small groups. They are active year-round, but are rarely seen because they are most active at night and prefer to hide high in a tree or in a den during the day. They are very slow, attaining a maximum speed of only two miles per hour.

Porcupine © Chris Ruggiero
Porcupine © Chris Ruggiero

Most predators avoid porcupines, except the fisher, which is adept at flipping it to expose the tender belly.

Despite persistent rumors, a porcupine cannot shoot its quills; when facing a threat it erects them and lashes out with its spiny tail. Quills are modified, hollow hairs with sharp, microscopic barbs at the tip. Quills cover the entire body except for the face, belly, inner thighs, and underside of the tail. When a porcupine is threatened they turn their back, raise their quills and make noises. If the threat continues, they swing their tails at the attacker. The erect quills release easily when the fish hook-like barbs lodge in the attacker’s body.


Porcupines are fond of salt, and will sometimes chew on wooden objects that have been exposed to sweat, such as canoe oars or axe handles. This love of salt often leads them to roadsides where salt has been spread. Their summer diet consists of flowers, berries, grains, and leaves. In the winter, they eat primarily evergreen needles and the inner bark of trees. A tree with branches stripped of their bark is often a sign of a porcupine in the area.

Situations & Solutions

Porcupine quills are hollow and barbed. Once embedded in flesh, they absorb moisture and body heat and expand, becoming even more difficult to remove. They tend to work their way deeper into the skin as time goes on, so it is best to get them out as quickly as possible. These quills can cause serious injury or infection, so people and pets who have been “quilled” should receive professional care to ensure the quills are removed correctly and completely.

If you can’t get to a doctor immediately, a good tip to alleviate swelling is to clip just the ends off of the quills, which relieves some of the pressure that builds up inside as the hollow quills absorb water and body heat. Because the backward-facing barbs will catch and tear the skin if pulled straight out, they should instead be removed in the direction of entry with a gentle but firm twisting motion. Twisting the quill should help reduce how much the barbed tip catches the skin on its way out.