Johan Fourie from Centurion writes: I photographed this dove in my garden. Although impaled by a porcupine quill, it didn’t seem to be struggling too much, but it did sometimes trip over the quill. It ate some pap that I put out and flew into a nearby tree. I know it’s a myth that porcupines shoot their quills and to my knowledge there aren’t any porcupines in my area. However, Rietvlei Dam is about 13 km away. Any idea what might have happened here?

Bird expert Faansie Peacock says: It looks like the quill has penetrated the right side of the bird’s chest, but it missed the wing so it doesn’t seem to have an effect on the bird’s ability to fly, eat or walk around. The wound is probably smaller than it looks because it’s hidden beneath a thick layer of contour feathers. This is a freak accident and how it happened is a mystery. It might be that the bird ventured too close to a porcupine, but that’s unlikely.

Porcupines can’t shoot their quills, but people can. It’s possible that there was a third party involved. Quills are often used in home-made weapons and traps. But if the bird was shot, the quill is at a strange angle.

A recent study on the interaction between birds and the North American porcupine reported 17 cases and nine species that got to know the sharp end of a porcupine quill. The end result of many of the cases are unknown, but at least half of the birds died. 

It might be that the bird ventured too close to a porcupine, but that’s unlikely.

The majority of these cases involved birds of prey (eagles, buzzards, hawks and large owls) as well as crows. A grouse hen with quills in her breast has also been recorded. The grouse nests on the ground and she might have been injured while protecting her eggs: Porcupines might be largely vegetarian, but there have been reports of North American species eating bird eggs. The calcium in the eggshell could be the real target, since porcupines like to gnaw on bones as well.

Johan was surprised to see a porcupine quill in suburban Centurion, but porcupines are highly adaptable and are widespread in green belts and urban areas. They’re found in many municipal nature reserves and estates in and around Pretoria.

I doubt the dove will survive for long. Even if the wounds heal, the quill will remain a hindrance.

Do you have an interesting sighting of your own? Send your questions to editor@gomag.co.za