Hans My Hedgehog | Hedgehog Facts

Hedgehog Facts

About two hundred years ago, a pair of brothers named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm who lived in Germany set about collecting folktales from German and a few French storytellers. One of the stories they wrote down was "Hans My Hedgehog." I was lucky enough to be able to retell this folktale for a picture book illustrated by the very talented John Nickle.

Hans is a boy who is born half-hedgehog, which makes his life rather difficult. But he persists, raising pigs and learning to play the fiddle so well that his music becomes more than a little magical. Eventually, he helps two kings in the forest and has a whole new adventure.

Here, in honor of Hans, I have collected some facts about real-life hedgehogs for you.

Famous Hedgehogs

I usually think of hedgehogs as living in England, but the 17 species of hedgehog are actually found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have also been brought to other countries as pets and have been loosed in the wild.
Why do I think of hedgehogs as living in England? Because the most famous hedgehog in children's books is Mrs. Twiggy-Winkle, the creation of British author/illustrator Beatrix Potter.
Did you know that Beatrix Potter used her pet hedgehog—whose name really was Mrs. Twiggy-winkle—as her model for the hedgehog washerwoman in her story?
There's another famous hedgehog in children's books—the croquet ball Alice uses when playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Of course, the croquet mallet is a flamingo.
You may be familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog, a famous video game character, too!

Hedgehogs Wild and Tame

Lots of people keep hedgehogs as pets. (This is legal in many states in the United States, but not in California; Georgia; Hawaii; Douglas County, Nebraska; and New York City, New York.)
Most pet hedgehogs are North African hedgehogs, commonly known as African pygmy hedgehogs.
In Great Britain, wild hedgehogs are listed as an endangered species. You're not allowed to keep one as a pet.
Hedgehogs are sometimes hit by cars, but if you're in the British countryside, you can take the injured animal to one of approximately 40 hedgehog hospitals.
McDonald's changed their McFlurry cup design in 2006 because hedgehogs had been getting their heads stuck in them and starving to death.
Just one hedgehog in your garden will eat most insect pests. Some people in Great Britain put out food and leave hedgehog-size holes in their hedges, hoping to get some help with pest control.
If hedgehogs eat insects that have eaten insecticide, they will eventually get sick and die themselves.

What's a Hedgehog?

A hedgehog is a small animal covered in prickly spines that lie somewhat flat until it is frightened—then they stick up!
Hedgehogs are often found in hedges, and their noses look a little like a hog's, so it's easy to see where they got their name. (I will mostly be talking about the European hedgehog on this page.)
Much like pigs, male hedgehogs are called boars, female hedgehogs are called sows, and baby hedgehogs are called hoglets.
Full-grown hedgehogs can be as long as 12 inches and weight up to 2.6 pounds, so they aren't very big.
It used to be that hedgehogs were classified in the order Insectivora, along with shrews and moles, but not anymore. The only other member of their new order, Erinaceomorpha, are the gymnures or moonrats.
Hedgehogs are born with little spines, so you would think they would stab their mothers on the way out. Instead, the baby's spines lie flat under a thin layer of skin that comes off after they are born.
Once the special layer of skin is gone, the baby's small white baby spines are replaced by heavier, darker spines. These appear a few days after birth.
Hedgehogs live alone. They hardly ever spend time together. Even baby hedgehogs must leave their mothers when they are only 5-6 weeks old to live on their own.
Hedgehogs don't have great eyesight, but their hearing and sense of smell are very good.
A hedgehog may have as many as 7,000 spines, each with a miniature set of muscles that lifts it into defensive position when needed.
Two large muscles on either side of the hedgehog's body are used to roll it into a prickly ball when danger threatens.
Hedgehogs can roll into a ball in a hundredth of a second!

Leaves and Slugs and Hibernation

Hedgehogs are nocturnal. They sleep during the day and wake up to hunt when the sun sets.
Where do hedgehogs sleep? Some dig dens, but European hedgehogs usually tuck themselves beneath a bush, thick grass, or some other cover they find.
Hedgehogs hibernate during the winter. They make dens out of leaves they stuff under hedges, beneath human tool sheds, or inside rotten logs, among other spots.
A hibernating hedgehog only breathes 13 times a minute, and its heart beats only 62 times a minute. (Its normal breathing rate is 58 breathes per minute. Its normal heart rate is 265 beats a minute.) The hedgehog's body temperature drops from 95.5 degrees Fahrenheit to about 45 degrees Fahrenheit while it is hibernating.
A hedgehog must fatten itself up in the fall in order to survive during hibernation. It does wake up a few times during the winter, but by that time, there's not much food available.
European hedgehogs mostly eat insects, snails, and worms, though they sometimes eat frogs, birds' eggs, and small rodents.
Hedgehogs like to eat slugs, but not the slime on the outside. They hold the slugs down with their feet and roll them around to wipe off the slime before eating them.
Hedgehogs are good swimmers. They can swim across streams and ponds.
Hedgehogs grunt, snuffle, sniff, whistle, chirp, and squeak. They even scream when they are threatened or angry!
Some version of the hedgehog has been around for nearly 70 million years.

Hedgehog Enemies and Those Amazing Spines

The Romans used to comb sheep wool with the spines on dried hedgehog skins.
Historically, many cultures have eaten hedgehogs. The Egyptians used to cover hedgehogs in clay and bake them. The British roasted them and ate them with nettle pudding.
The hedgehog's spines are stiff, hollow hairs reinforced by keratin. They are not barbed, but they hurt enough to make a fox or a cat let go of a mouthful of them.
The most successful predators against hedgehogs are owls and badgers. Animals with long claws or big teeth can sometimes get through the hedgehog's spines—for example, a very large dog. Foxes and other small predators only manage to eat baby hedgehogs.
Hedgehogs have some immunity to snake venom. It helps that a hedgehog can roll in a ball. After the snake tries and tries to bite through the spines and gets worn out, the hedgehog can bite the snake along the backbone to the head to kill it.
"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing," wrote the Greek poet Archilochus about 2,700 years ago. Can you guess what the "one big thing" is?

Links and Sources

  • "Hedgehog," Wikipedia, Web 22 Nov 11.

  • Animal Neighbors: Hedgehog, by Micael Leach, New York: Power Kids Press, 2000.

  • "Roast Hedgehog and Nettle Pud—A Slap-up Feast for Ancient Britons," by Helen Pidd, The Guardian, 13 Sept 2007, Web 22 Nov 11.

  • "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Hedgehog," FindArticles by Chris Reiter and Gina C. Gould, (Reference/Natural History), Web 22 Nov 11.

  • Hedgehogs: A Complete Owner's Manual, by Matthew M. Vriends and Tanya M. Heming-Vriends, New York: Barron's, 2000.

This little painted paper hedgehog sits on my desk and reminds me of Hans.

The ceramic pig is Hans' buddy—remember the pigs in the story?

The Tale of Mrs. Twiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter

Alice playing croquet with a hedgehog ball, illustration by Sir John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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