'Tis the season for porcupine mating in Glacier Bay National Park

While Alaskans are busy this fall winterizing their vehicles and consuming a large variety of pumpkin spice treats, the porcupines of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, in the Alaska Panhandle, are also staying busy while keeping up with their fall routines.

As park ranger Laura Buchheit bluntly puts it: " 'Tis the season for porcupine mating" -- a three-month period each fall.

Buchheit said there have been several recent reports from community members and from her own colleagues that more porcupines are making themselves known lately than at any other time of year. And that is likely because it's mating season.

Buchheit has been a park ranger at the Southeast Alaska park, west of Juneau, for 2 1/2 years. She said last week she was walking near the shoreline in of Bartlett Cove, an area the National Park Service says is still being affected by changes rooted in the Neoglacial Ice Age.

As she walked, she said, she heard the peculiar sounds of "porcupines conversing."

"I would describe the porcupine sounds I heard as a hiccuping whinny (sound) -- a hiccup followed by a descending whin(e)," Buchheit wrote in an email. "Hard to describe! I have heard porcupine sounds described as shrieks, but this was a more rhythmic, conversational tone."

Because of the sounds and the time of year, Buchheit said it is fair to assume the two were mating.


Buchheit said a female porcupine is sexually mature by the time she is 1 year old; males aren't mature until they're 2.

But a porcupine relationship isn't much of a love story. Unlike penguins, celebrated in modern literature and movies, porcupines won't mate for life. The male will have multiple partners, while the female will only mate with one male unless she is unsuccessful in becoming pregnant, at which point, Buchheit said, she will go back into estrus and attempt to mate again.

When a female porcupine mates she will curl her tail over her back to cover the sharpest quills, said Buchheit.

A female porcupine's pregnancy is also much longer than most rodents'. As the second largest rodent, a female porcupine doesn't give birth for seven months, usually in the early spring.

Porcupettes, or baby porcupines, are born with all of their quills, said Buchheit, but during birth the quills are soft, hardening only a couple of hours after birth. The porcupettes will stay with their mother through the fall until winter, when they begin establishing their own home range.

Buchheit said it is hard to know exactly how many porcupines live in Bartlett Cove. She said no one is keeping track and there are no ongoing porcupine studies but they are a well-known presence in the park.

"We see them along the sides of the roads nibbling on plants, by the headquarters area," said Buchheit. "We don't see them as often in the winter because the snow is difficult for them to walk through snow banks. We will see that they've (been) eating spruce bark (the species' primary food during winter months), or nibbling on plants, or scurrying away -- well, like a waddling scurry."

And although in a residential or suburban area porcupines can be a nuisance, they aren't in the park, said Buchheit. Like moose, they eat tree bark but Buchheit said the moose do more damage.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is now operating in its winter hours. During winter months porcupines are more likely to be spotted in trees than on the ground, Buchheit said: "It's easier for them to go vertical than horizontal."

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.