Porcupine photography requires quiet patience in the woods, naturalist Brian Keating says

Calgary nature photographer Susan Ingham loves to capture images of porcupines in the wild by using a method called “Seton watching” — basically sitting and waiting. 

Ingham invited CBC naturalist Brian Keating to join her on a porcupine photography outing, and he took her up on it, Keating told The Homestretch.

“Thompson Seton, a Canadian naturalist, lived about 100 years ago, and he coined the term ‘Seton’ watching because he believed that if you sat long enough, nature would come to you,” Keating said. 

“And that’s what Susan does. She goes into the woods and she sits with it and waits, and waits, and watches.”

Keating said he gained a new respect for the quiet and patient approach to nature photography, and her spectacular results — he shared some of Ingham’s favourite porcupine photos, with her permission, many taken in Calgary’s Fish Creek Park.

Porcupine Chewy P (Susan Ingham)

Keating said there’s a reason most Calgarians have not spotted a porcupine in the city — they’re elusive.

“They’re actually quite common, but they stay hidden during the day and and they den up in hollow logs or up in gnarly crooks of our cottonwood trees along the river edge,” Keating said.

“There’s been a lot of wood piles left behind by the 2013 flood, and they’re probably hiding under there during the day.”

Keating said they are sometimes spotted in suburban backyards.

“I’ve had them in my backyard on a few occasions and, you know, and they’re really destructive when it comes to taking care of my peas that I’m trying to grow in my backyard,” he said. “But you can’t be mad at a porcupine!”

Keating said baby porcupines can even be handled by humans, if carefully. 

“I remember when I worked at the zoo, we used to get baby porcupines in … more often than not plucked from the belly of a roadkill mom,” Keating said. 

“When you hand raise them, they actually become amazingly handle-able. You’ve just got to be careful not to pet them the wrong way.

“They’re impossibly cute, and when you feed them little carrot chunks, they hum.”

Wildlife photographer Susan Ingham has dubbed this animal Swamp P. (Susan Ingham)

Keating said porcupine quills are actually modified hairs, hollow and barbed.

When a porcupine is threatened, they’ll contract their muscles near the skin, which causes the quills to stand up and out from their bodies, and they will swing their tail to detach the quills.

“They can release a lot of quills at once into the face of, for instance, an inquisitive dog,” Keating said.

“So they can be pretty dangerous that way. It’s an effective form of making sure you don’t get eaten or at least slowing the creatures down that might eat you.”

They sometimes don’t smell so great.

 “They’ve got a strong odour that they can imitate. Almost smells like a strong human body odoor. It’s from a rosette, the lower of part of their back where the modified quills that are there actually act as a scent broadcasting mechanism.”

Evidence of a porcupine — chew marks on a blown-down Aspen tree in southern Alberta. (Brian Keating)

And when it comes to mating, things can get prickly.

“The usual answer is they mate very carefully, but in reality, they mate like any other mammal mates,” Keating said, adding they are capable of putting their quills down flat — and if something goes wrong, their teeth are designed to extract their own quills.

If you are experiencing issues with a porcupine in your backyard, Keating suggests just enjoying it — but both the city and the province offer resources on how to manage them.

For more fascinating stories about Alberta’s wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

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