Archive for Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Kansas porcupine sightings rare, but real

November 30, 2005

Kirk Sours wondered why the steer turned his head sideways to eat at the feed bunk.

So Sours, manager of the 2,000-acre Tailgate Ranch south of Tonganoxie, took a closer look.

And what the lifelong Kansan and outdoorsman saw on Nov. 12 surprised him. A total of 24 porcupine quills protruded from the calf's nose.

"I grew up hunting and trapping and running the woods and the hills and I never heard anybody talking about porcupines in Kansas," Sours said, who has worked at Tailgate since 1987 and grew up 100 miles west of Tonganoxie.

But years ago, when he worked with cattle in the Nebraska sandhills, every now and then a calf would have a run-in with a porcupine.

"They learn," Sours said. "It only takes once."

To remove the quills, Sours put the calf in a shoot where he couldn't move his head, and used pliers to pull out the quills.

The process didn't take long, he said.

"We spent more time waiting for the camera because we knew nobody would believe it," Sours said.

Jefferson County sighting

Also in early November, rural McLouth resident Cindy Spriggs saw tell-tale signs of a porcupine.

Spriggs' farm is in Jefferson County, about 10 miles northwest of Tailgate Ranch.

Spriggs, who works at the Douglas County courthouse, said her horse, Jewell, was acting unusual on the morning of Nov. 3. As the horse approached, she realized why.

"I saw those things," Spriggs said. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh.' I thought those really look like porcupine quills, but how?"

Spriggs, who is 43, has lived on the farm, which is near the Circle S Ranch, since she was 12. It's an area where the rural land is a mix of pasture, crops and timber.

And though Spriggs said, she'd never seen a porcupine on the property, she knew that that's what the 19 quills in her horse's nose were from.

"I called the vet because I knew there would be no way that I could pull them out," Spriggs said. "He came out and sedated her pretty heavy -- then he pulled them out. He gave her a shot of antibiotics and a tetanus shot and that was it. She never had any problems. They all came out nice and clean."

Spriggs was surprised to learn porcupines live in Kansas.

"I've been around here forever and never had any problems," Spriggs said. "I would have figured that one of the dogs would have come across them (porcupines), but nothing."

Have quills, will travel

Robert Timm, a professor of ecology at Kansas University, said he receives several reports of porcupine sightings -- or of evidence of porcupines -- each year.

"They've sort of been here all along," Timm said. "They're just in low, low numbers in this part of Kansas."

It's possible, Timm said, that these porcupines weren't born here.

"What we see on these individual cases is an individual porcupine that has dispersed a long, long way," Timm said. "That porcupine may have been born 100 miles away and walked that far."

And typically, Timm said, the porcupines traveling about are males.

"You might predict it's always the young males that are getting into trouble," he said, chuckling.

Most of a porcupine's quills are on its back side -- just the place a dog on the chase might tend to reach for a bite, Timm said.

The quills, which are barbed on the ends, point backward.

"What happens is the dog just rushes up and tries to bite them and gets a mouth full of quills in the gums and lips," Timm said.

It's important to remove the quills.

"Don't try to leave your dog to do it on his own," Timm said. "You just need to grab a small pair of pliers and basically rip the quills backward."

Timm said it's a misbelief that porcupines shoot quills.

"Sometimes when they shake their tails the quills fall off, but they can't shoot their quills off," Timm said.

And, lest anyone is intent on capturing a porcupine to put it in a stew, Timm said he's tried it and he wouldn't recommend it.

"It's sort of an old trappers' tale that hunters used to eat porcupine," Timm said. "I tried it once. It's terrible. It's the worst tasting meat I ever had -- it tastes like a cedar tree, which is what they eat."

Porcupines, which can live about 10 years in the wild and typically weigh about 15 pounds, dine on grass, twigs and tree bark, Timm said.

A porcupine may have as many as 30,000 quills. These are modified barbed hairs that have hollow, spongy centers and are loosely attached to the body.

"Porcupines are very cute, very peaceful and they won't cause any trouble if you don't bother them," Timm said.

Despite the recent reports of porcupines in the area, Timm said he's not predicting a rash of porcupine sightings.

The two incidents occurred about nine days and 10 miles apart.

"Maybe it's the same animal," Timm said.

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