Porcupines!
Dedicated to Chris, Squeak, Lucy, Roubles, Lion, Mortimer, and Limpet

Abe, Rhinoceros, and Camel enjoying apple slices next to a snoozing Limpet, 2021

In the winter of 2010, snow piled so high on top of my hanging bird feeder that it bent down within a few inches of the deck. Porcupines, having made a brief appearance in April of 2009, then began to show up on a regular basis to nibble at the black oil sunflower seeds inside. At first we didn't know what to make of it! As we began to recognize individuals, Chris made the bold statement that we'd soon be able to feed them out of our hands. I was dubious, but he was right. The porcupines--named George and Oscar--dispersed for the summer, but reappeared the following fall along with our first great porcupine friend Squeak, a younger, very tolerant porcupine who ate seeds and apples from our hands and came inside the house to visit (and eat). We talked with a porcupine biologist about the ethics of feeding porcupines, not wanting to cause them harm in any way, and got the unofficial go ahead (and feeding rodents is not illegal in Alaska). Thus began the great porcupine adventure. We discovered to our delight that porcupines have strong individual personalities and complex social lives. Some were friendly from the moment they arrived, others slowly warmed up to us, and some remained permanently standoffish. Some quietly ate seeds in the dark and left, others scratched at the door for apples, climbed ladders, knocked over flower pots, tried to break in, and slept in various unintentional man-made dens around the house. Some were only friendly within the context of the feeders on the porch, others would hum a greeting and walk to me anywhere I encountered them. Some were just plain goofy.

After several years, we began recording sightings until every encounter was noted and photographed, any interesting behavior was described, and activities during the night were captured with motion sensor cameras. A well-worn porcupine trail now runs to my house which I believe contributes to the large influx of porcupines that began in 2018. Since then I've had about 25 individuals come each year often enough for me to recognize, photograph, and name them. Some have become great friends. Some fell from trees, were predated, run over, or otherwise passed away nearby and were buried with sorrow. Most stayed a season or two and were never seen again. My best friend, Lucy, (a male), stayed the longest so far; we met him during his first fall in 2013 as a bold little porcupette who quickly became a good friend, always mellow and agreeable; he was last seen on November 1, 2020, just before an ice storm ravaged the mountain, having spent seven winters in the neighborhood bringing joy to me and to many guests. Lucy had the uncanny ability to arrive just in time to charm everyone and eat from their nervous hands. Gaining the trust of these wonderful creatures hasn't just allowed me (and guests) to enjoy their company and occasionally give them a good pet (yes, really); I've also witnessed rarely seen events including long bouts of rigorous playing, courtship (which involves males using an erection to spray urine on females), and, once, mating (which is how I know Lucy was male).

During the 2019-2020 season, the number of porcupines became overwhelming and identifying lesser known individuals increasingly challenging, so I finally made a catalog, inspired by my whale watching days, which helped me sort them out inseason. I then retroactively created catalogs for all previous years (below). Please enjoy them, and please be kind to your porcupine neighbors!

December 2023 update: The count of recognizable porcupines is 22 as of the end of the year. Six big boys crowd the feeder (Tertullian, Starburst, Abe, Lichen, Rigel, and an unnamed newbie) who, along with the myriad smaller members, munch through more than nine pints of seeds every night by about midnight! Four young-of-the-year are around, including the achingly adorable Coconut, and everyone is relegated to small apple slices due to the high demand.