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Past Pieces: “Wisconsin’s prickly rodent”

The article below, “Wisconsin’s prickly rodent” by Alan D. Martin, was originally published in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine in February 1996. We hope this article gives you a newfound enthusiasm for the “barbed quill-pig of the woods” as well! 

The common porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is a wonderful, necessary member of Northwoods wildlife, and I’m glad it is here in large numbers. Throw stones if you want, but I’ll stand by porkies.

They kill trees, you say? Well, owls, wood ducks, hooded mergansers and woodpeckers need homes too, and porcupines are part of nature’s snag-making team.

Porcupines hurt my dog, you say? Well, most dogs learn from that first painful mistake and don’t go near porcupines again. Only one of my family’s six hunting dogs hasn’t gotten a snootful of quills in recent years, and only one needed a second dose to learn the lesson. The other grousers now bark, from a distance, at the quill-pig.

Because of such mishaps, some porcupines are shot on sight. That’s a real shame because the porky isn’t only the prickliest resident of the Northwoods, it’s also one of the most interesting.

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Porcupine captured on a Vilas County Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera

Porkies are the second-largest rodent in Wisconsin after the North American beaver. They can weigh 30 pounds or more in summer but their weight drops dramatically during the lean months of winter. Porcupines live in the northern two-thirds of the state in a territory that extends in a V-shape from about the Ellsworth area in Pierce County down to Wisconsin Dells and back up toward Green Bay.

Porcupines, like most rodents, are vegetarians. Their winter diet consists of conifer needles, buds and the bark of pines, hemlock, maples and birch. How these critters survive on foods with a protein content of only two to three percent is truly amazing.

Porcupines are sloppy eaters who drop a lot of greenery that provides a welcome snack for white-tailed deer during deep snows. If you spot a small pile of freshly-snipped branches on a winter walk, it’s likely porcupines are nearby. Their winter dens are easy to find – just follow your eyes and nose. Porcupines winter in caves and hollow logs. They travel the same paths every day. Near their dens you’ll see distinctive fecal piles and smell the strong scent of concentrated urine.

In spring, abundant food allows the porcupines to roam more freely, and they grow fat and healthy while dozing in the dog days of summer. Porkies consume tender shoots, succulent twigs, roots, seeds and (often to the dismay of gardeners) apples, melons, carrots, potatoes and other juicy produce. Nor are the gardener’s tools immune to the porcupine’s gouging incisors. The animals need sodium to rid their bodies of high levels of potassium from leaves and bark. Axe handles, hoes, canoe paddles, gloves and anything else touched by salty human hands are porcupine magnets.

When defending itself, a porcupine sits very still, faces away from its enemy, raises up, bristles and rattles its quill-studded tail, protecting vital areas from potential predators with up to 30,000 barbed quills.

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Porcupine captured on a Sawyer County Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera

Although porkies are slow, ambling creatures, it’s not always easy to keep your distance. A deer-hunting friend of mine still talks about his close encounter. Gary was sitting in his tree stand one day when a young-of-the-year porcupine climbed up the same tree and took a seat directly adjacent to Gary’s face. He was kind of cute (the baby porky, that is), as he sat there making little noises with his teeth and watching this newcomer to the tree. Somehow Gary didn’t find much to admire. He just kept a real close eye on the porky’s tail and slowly, calmly eased out of his stand and made his way down the tree. His heart was pounding pretty hard as he reached the ground and looked up at the porky still perched on a branch.

Only one predator poses a significant threat to porcupines – the fisher. These large weasels will wait for the right moment and inflict quick bites to the porcupine’s face and nose, areas that can take little abuse before the injury is fatal.

The porcupine is relatively silent throughout its life, so many people don’t recognize the whining squeal that sounds like a cross between a piglet and a crying baby. The sound varies in pitch and is most often heard in areas with rocky knobs and a good mix of conifers and hardwoods – prime porcupine habitat.

Native Americans had both respect and use for the porcupine. Its quills were incorporated in elaborate embroidered pieces, baskets and artwork. Porcupine quills were bartered and traded with plains tribes who had less frequent contact with the woodland creature.

So keep an eye out for the barbed quill-pig of the woods on your next winter walk. And if one finds you, show some respect.

To view the full posting of the article in the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, click this link.

WCBM at 15: Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network Turns 15

The following post is by a guest blogger, Eva Lewandowski,  the Citizen-based Monitoring Program Coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Thank you, Eva!

The Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring (WCBM) Network is celebrating its 15th cbmHistoryLogoanniversary this year! Citizen-based monitoring, a form of citizen science, is the participation of volunteers in the long-term monitoring of our natural resources. In 2004, over a century of successes in volunteer efforts had demonstrated their utility for research, conservation management, regulation, and education throughout the state. This led DNR staff to explore ways to link together the many organizations and individuals involved in citizen-based monitoring programs. Partnering with organizations such as UW-Extension, Wisconsin Wetlands Association, Beaver Creek Reserve, and more, they organized and held the first Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Conference in 2004, which was attended by over 120 people.

One of the major takeaways from the conference was the need for a statewide infrastructure to facilitate networking opportunities, the sharing of resources, funding, and communication within Wisconsin’s growing citizen-based monitoring community. Attendees decided that the next step should be to form a statewide group, and the WCBM Network was born!

The WCBM Network’s mission is to improve the effectiveness of volunteer efforts that monitor our plants, animals, waters, and habitats. It supports these efforts by offering resources for volunteers, project staff, researchers, land managers, and other members of the citizen-based monitoring community. The network’s website offers a searchable directory of monitoring projects and groups, an event calendar, and resources for starting a citizen-based monitoring project, selecting monitoring protocols, and even finding equipment and funding. Conferences, trainings, and frequent communications help the WCBM Network’s partners network and stay up to date on the latest news and resources.

Snapshot Wisconsin is proud to be a partner of the WCBM Network. Other partners in the WCBM Network include projects like the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program, and the Rare Plant Monitoring Program. Many organizations are also partners, including DNR, the Wisconsin Master Naturalists, and nature centers throughout the state.

You can help celebrate the WCBM at 15 anniversary by learning about the history of citizen-based monitoring in Wisconsin and by pledging to volunteer your time for one of the state’s many monitoring projects at wiatri.net/cbm.

Past Pieces: “You little weasel!”

Snapshot Wisconsin volunteers have identified a total of 493 triggers of weasels over the course of the project. Although we don’t distinguish between species in our classifications, Wisconsin is home to three distinct species: the long-tailed weasel, short-tailed weasel and least weasel. One of them is known as the smallest carnivore in North America, read through the post to find out which species it is!

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Long-tailed weasel from Jackson County

The article below, “You little weasel!” by Christian W. Cold, was originally published in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine in February 1998. After reading, you may find that these mysterious critters will weasel their way into your liking.

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@ Gregory Scott

Survival is the objective of the day, every day, if you are little. And danger is always nearby when you are a weasel. Creatures larger than you are out there, listening, and watching with hungry eyes. You avoid their attention by remaining tentative; carefully choosing when to move. You travel about your 40-acre universe in a state of perpetual tension, keenly aware of every sound, every smell and every motion around you

Finding a meal is work. Avoiding becoming a meal is even tougher. As both hunter and hunted, you bear the risks by constantly moving. If you tarry, you die; if your prey hesitates, it dies. Your quarry takes many forms – most are smaller than you, but similar in appearance. Their scent lingers everywhere, but they vanish when you arrive. Your prey cringes in terror in your presence…with good reason

Weasels have an image problem. We are quick to condemn them as corrupt, greedy little villains who sneak around and kill with deadly efficiency for no reason whatsoever. We’ve historically viewed weasels as pests, varmints or scraps of fur only suitable for a decorative trim on collar or cuff. It’s a wonder that weasels have endured such a hostile world.In fact, weasels are marvelously successful. They persist by being alert, inquisitive, tenacious and most importantly, small.

weasels track mice through their winter runaways and lairs gregory scott

Weasels track mice through their winter runaways and lairs @Gregory Scott

Hunters of mice

Weasels are members of a large and diverse family of mammals known as mustelids, which include mink, martens, fishers and skunks. If you shake the family tree harder, badgers, wolverines and otters are also distant relatives. As a clan, the mustelids are typically slender, elongated animals with short legs, a small head and short fur. Their needle-like canine teeth are designed to pierce the throat and brain of small animals, particularly rodents.

The species name, Mustela, means “one who carries off mice,” and all weasels are accomplished mousers. However, to reap the benefits of their small, dynamic world, the weasels can’t afford to be picky eaters. The bill-of-fare includes chipmunks, ground squirrels, insects, small birds, frogs and snakes. Shrews form an important part of their winter diet. Though they occasionally eat fish, weasels are poor swimmers, paddling clumsily with their backs arched out of water.

Weasels have an earned reputation as fierce, efficient predators that will attack animals several times their own size. A four-ounce weasel can kill a four-pound rabbit. The weasel’s habit of killing larger prey and killing several animals at a time stems from its habit of storing or caching surplus food for later use.

Small caches scattered about can provide a series of small meals. Incidents of wholesale slaughter in poultry yards are likely triggered when a weasel goes into “hunt mode” in the unnatural setting of finding several confined prey with no avenue of escape

Weasel biology

Three species of true weasels live in North America. The largest, at 18 inches, is the long-tailed weasel. Long-tails occupy diverse habitats throughout the United States and into Central America. They appear to prefer patchy landscapes of mixed habitats intersected by streams and small rivers. The smaller short-tailed weasel or “ermine” is found in heavily-forested areas and brushy areas of Canada, the northeastern states, the Upper Midwest and Northwestern forests. Smallest of the tribe is the least weasel, a pugnacious dynamo who claims the title as North America’s smallest carnivore. The least weasel is infrequently observed in the marshes and damp meadow. I once inadvertently caught one in a repeating mouse trp at the Mead Wildlife Area in Marathon County in the Upper Great lakes region.

The pelts of all three weasels are brownish and are replaced by a winter white coat that begins to appear by the first of November. The long-tail and short-tail sport a black tip on their tails; an attribute which may confound the striking accuracy of avian predators. Hawks, owls, eagles, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, lynx and domestic cats will eat a weasel – provided they can catch one! The larger mustelids such as mink, marten and fisher pursue small weasels with frightful determination. Size and agility are not the weasel’s only defense. A pungent musk, secreted from an anal gland, may repel or nauseate all but the most persistent of predators.

Weasels sexually mature before their first birthday. A typical litter of six or seven young is born each year and is cared for by both parents. Weasels reaching five to six years are regarded as fully mature. Individuals as old as 10 are considered ancient

How to find a weasel

Weasels are easiest to see in winter when leaf cover is gone and a thin layer of tracking snow will show their whereabouts in the neighborhood. Weasels leave staggered pairs of little footprints placed in a bounding gait fashion. Look for sudden right-angle turns in the tracks that often disappear beneath the snow and reappear at a considerable distance.

Weasels hunt aggressively during the cold, hungry months of winter. Their intense curiosity and insatiable appetite leads them to range widely in a seemingly erratic fashion. They seldom travel far in any one direction. A weasel will stop to poke its little head into every hole, nook and cranny it can probe. Its slender body can squeeze into lairs and runways of mice. Within these subterranean passages the weasel’s sensitive nose and ears will quickly locate the tenants.

Weasels often den in an abandoned (or usurped!) home of a chipmunk or ground squirrel, in a hollow log or under a pile of rubble. The nest chamber is often lined with fine grasses, feathers or the fur of the “former” occupants. Weasels are remarkably clean animals that will not defecate in their quarters. They designate a separate latrine area.

These sleek, little hunters are both feared and respected. If you are a weasel among mice, is it merely “a terrible efficiency” to be the animal that eats its neighbors? I think not. The weasel was designed by the limits of its environment to eat the flesh of others. It must kill to see another day. As humans, we tend to leave that grisly chore to the butcher, but the weasel assumes considerable risk and expends considerable energy just surviving.

The next time you get to see these ambitious little bundles of energy, take a moment to view the world from their perspective. Be thankful that at your comparative size, you can afford to wish them “good hunting.”

To view the full posting of the article in the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, click this link.

Southwest Deer and Predator Study

The following post is by a guest blogger, Caitlin Henning,  Communications Specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Office of Applied Science. Currently, her primary project is the WDNR’s landmark Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer & Predator Study. Thanks for the information on this project, Caitlin! Read More…

A (Fawn)tastic Start to Summer

The following post is by a guest blogger, Taylor Peltier,  research technician at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Taylor, a new member of the Snapshot team, recently spent a few weeks in the field assisting with fawn captures, and shares her experiences here. Thanks Taylor!

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From Madison to Addison: A tale of wildlife sightings in two states

The following post is by guest blogger Andrew L’Roe, a friend of Snapshot Wisconsin and fellow nature lover. Thanks for the post, Andrew!

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