Story and Photos by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… what’s up might be any species of our winter/nonmigratory birds. Or maybe a mammal that we may seldom see except for those unfortunate who have not been able to cross the road safely. Or perhaps mammals that we didn’t realize could actually climb trees. How many of you have ever seen a fox in a tree”? You probably will never see a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) in a tree, but you may have an opportunity to see a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) in a tree. However, there is a much better possibility of seeing a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) or a North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) as these two spend much of their lives in the branches overhead. Most of the Spring, Summer, and Fall they are camouflaged by tree foliage, but in winter, if you are looking up, there is a good chance of spotting one or the other.

Raccoons are not true hibernators. True hibernators like woodchucks and bears bulk up by eating fatty foods and then live off the stored body fat for many months. The raccoon will also consume foods rich in fat, carbohydrates, and proteins in addition to foods containing calcium, potassium, niacin, and phosphorus which will assist it through its dormant periods. However, during a winter thaw, it may be seen scavenging for food. These nightly activities may occur at winter bird feeding areas. We have even seen one or more using our heated birdbath. I don’t have a problem with them gathering some seeds or whole kernel corn, but I don’t appreciate one of their habits which is that of establishing a communal bathroom to deposit their scat. Occasionally one of these bathrooms may be found at the trunk of a tree or on a well-traveled path. Their scat contains seeds, insect remains, and other undigested particles. I don’t mind removing seed shells and other unwanted remnants from our feeder area on the balcony, but I am truly unhappy to see and remove their scat. Their scat often contains parasites that are dangerous to humans. As mentioned more than one raccoon may find its way to the bird feeding area as the immatures from her previous litter den up their mother until she leaves the den to begin a new family. The breeding time for a raccoon is sometime within the months of January and February in our area. Male raccoons den up alone and will travel as many as ten miles searching for a female in estrus (old enough to begin mating). Male raccoons will mate with one or several females during the mating season and will not participate in raising their offspring.

Porcupines do not hibernate and spend numerous hours in the highest branches of both deciduous and coniferous trees in winter. Hemlock and spruce are a preferred evergreen tree and their needle leaves provide food for them. Maple, Beech, Oak, Cherry, Basswood, Willow, and Aspen are the choice deciduous trees where they can consume the newly formed buds. They will nip the twigs off the branch and eat either needles or buds and then drop the twig to the ground. This habit allows them to eat the “choice parts” without having to climb onto branches that may not be able to hold their weight. While hiking or snowshoeing in winter you may see a tree with numerous twigs on the ground. Look up and you may just see the perpetrator. Female porcupines will have already mated in late fall or early winter. Her gestation time is two hundred and five to two hundred and fifteen days. She will not give birth to her offspring until April or even as late as August. She will only give birth to one baby porcupine which is known as a porcupette. The porcupette is born within a sac which protects the mother from the baby’s soft quills. The porcupette’s soft quills will dry and stiffen within a few hours. It will weigh about one pound and its eyes will be open. The mother will nurse her baby for about three months but by its ninth day, it will also begin eating leaves and other solid foods. The solid foods may include grasses, wildflowers, clover, farm crops, and eventually even aquatic vegetation. If you have seen newborn litters of kittens and puppies then you will understand the reason why the porcupine only gives birth to one offspring. Litters of newborn animals love to wrestle and play with one another. For a porcupette that type of playing would result in one or both of them being quilled.

A porcupine does not shoot its quills and will take numerous stances to avoid quilling an intruder. When threatened it assumes a defensive posture lowering its head and shoulders and turning its back to the predator. If possible it will climb a tree, if not, all of its quills will become erect and it will thrash its tail back and forth. It will make chattering sounds with its teeth. If the predator attacks, the quills which are loosely anchored will be put out and become embedded in the attacker. The center of the quill is spongy, it absorbs moisture and it swells flanging out backward-pointing barbules. Once the quill is embedded it may be drawn deeper into the tissue each time the predators’ muscles contract. The embedded quill can continue to travel at a rate of one-half inch per day, into the body, where it may penetrate a vital organ that could be fatal.

The winter birds have always amazed me with their abilities to be able to survive our frigid weather; especially when we endure temperatures of minus degrees for days at a time. The tiny Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) will find tree cavities in which it will spend the night. They are capable of reducing their body temperature. This ability is known as “regulated hypothermia” in which they are able to drop their body temperature as much as fifty degrees less than their active daytime temperature. A bird’s feathers are also extremely important in keeping them warm and staying warm reduces their need for food. Birds have numerous types of feathers each performing a different function in keeping their body heat from escaping. The loose fluffy feathers, like down, create air pockets between the skin and outer feathers for insulation. Feathers may keep the birds’ body temperature of one hundred and ten degrees from diminishing. Many birds have feet and legs that are featherless. These extremities are made up of tough tendons and are not susceptible to freezing. Birds will also roost with their heads tucked into their feathers and sit on their feet to avoid heat loss.

I hope that you are staying warm and enjoying our winter weather… and don’t forget to look up.

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at