Gateway to the Classics: Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by John Burroughs
Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by  John Burroughs

The Porcupine

Among our wild animals there are three that are slow-moving, dull-witted, and almost fearless,—the skunk, the opossum, and the porcupine. The two latter seem to be increasing in most parts of the country. The opossum is becoming quite common in the valley of the Hudson, and the porcupine is frequently met with in parts of the country where it was rarely or never seen forty years ago.

When the boys of late fall now go cooning where I used to go cooning in my youth, the dogs often run on a porcupine or drive him up a tree, and thus the sport is interrupted. Sometimes the dog comes to them with his mouth stuck full of quills, and is then compelled to submit to the painful operation of having them withdrawn.

A sportsman relates that he once came upon a dead porcupine and a dead bald eagle lying upon the ground within a few yards of each other. The eagle had partly torn the porcupine to pieces, but in attacking it with its beak it had driven numerous spines of the animal into its throat, and from their effect had apparently died as soon as its victim.

The quill of a porcupine is like a bad habit: if it once gets hold it constantly works deeper and deeper, though the quill has no power of motion in itself; it is the live, active flesh of its victim that draws it in by means of the barbed point. One day my boy and I encountered a porcupine on the top of one of the Catskills, and we had a little circus with him; we wanted to wake him up, and make him show a little excitement, if possible. Without violence or injury to him, we succeeded to the extent of making his eyes fairly stand out from his head, but quicken his motion he would not,—probably could not.

What astonished and alarmed him seemed to be that his quills had no effect upon his enemies; they laughed at his weapons. He stuck his head under a rock and left his back and tail exposed. This is the porcupine's favorite position of defense. "Now come if you dare," he seems to say. Touch his tail, and like a trap it springs up and strikes your hand full of little quills. The tail is the active weapon of defense; with this the animal strikes. It is the outpost that delivers its fire before the citadel is reached. It is doubtless this fact that has given rise to the popular notion that the porcupine can shoot its quills, which of course it cannot do.

With a rotten stick we sprang the animal's tail again and again, till its supply of quills began to run low, and the creature grew uneasy. "What does this mean?" he seemed to say, his excitement rising. His shield upon his back, too, we trifled with, and when we finally drew him forth with a forked stick, his eyes were ready to burst from his head. In what a peevish, injured tone the creature did complain of our unfair tactics! He protested and protested, and whimpered and scolded, like some infirm old man tormented by boys. His game after we led him forth was to keep himself as much as possible in the shape of a ball, but with two sticks and a cord we finally threw him over on his back and exposed his quill-less and vulnerable under side, when he fairly surrendered and seemed to say, "Now you may do with me as you like." Then we laughed in his face and went our way.

Before we had reached our camp I was suddenly seized with a strange, acute pain in one of my feet. It seemed as if a large nerve was being roughly sawed in two. I could not take another step. Sitting down and removing my shoe and stocking, I searched for the cause of the paralyzing pain. The foot was free from mark or injury, but what was that little thorn or fang of thistle doing on the ankle? I pulled it out and found it to be one of the lesser quills of the porcupine. By some means, during our "circus," the quill had dropped inside my stocking, the thing had "taken," and the porcupine had his revenge for all the indignities we had put upon him. I was well punished. The nerve which the quill struck had unpleasant memories of it for many months afterward.

When you come suddenly upon the porcupine in his native haunts, he draws his head back and down, puts up his shield, trails his broad tail, and waddles slowly away. His shield is the sheaf of larger quills upon his back, which he opens and spreads out in a circular form so that the whole body is quite hidden beneath it. The porcupine's great chisel-like teeth, which are quite as formidable as those of the woodchuck, he does not appear to use at all in his defense, but relies entirely upon his quills, and when those fail him he is done for.

I once passed a summer night alone upon the highest peak of the Catskills, Slide Mountain. I soon found there were numerous porcupines that desired to keep me company. The news of my arrival in the afternoon seemed to have spread rapidly among them. They probably had scented me. After resting awhile I set out to look up the spring, and met a porcupine on his way toward my camp. He turned out in the grass, and then, as I paused, came back into the path and passed directly over my feet. He evidently felt that he had as good a right to the road as I had; he had traveled it many times before me. When I charged upon him with a stick in my hand, he slowly climbed a small balsam fir.



I soon found the place of the spring, and, having dredged it and cleaned it, I sat down upon a rock and waited for the water slowly to seep in. Presently I heard something in the near bushes, and in a moment a large porcupine came into view. I thought that he, too, was looking for water; but no, he was evidently on his way to my camp. He, also, had heard the latest rumor on the mountain-top. It was highly amusing to watch his movements. He came teetering along in the most aimless, idiotic way. Now he drifted off a little to the right, then a little to the left; his blunt nose seemed vaguely to be feeling the air; he fumbled over the ground, tossed about by loose boulders and little hillocks; his eyes wandered stupidly about; I was in plain view within four or five yards of him, but he heeded me not. Then he turned back a few paces, but some slight obstacle in his way caused him to change his mind. One thought of a sleep-walker; uncertainty was stamped upon every gesture and movement; yet he was really drifting towards camp. After a while he struck the well-defined trail, and his gray, shapeless body slowly disappeared up the slope. In five or six minutes I overtook him shuffling along within sight of the big rock upon which rested my blanket and lunch. As I came up to him he depressed his tail, put up his shield, and slowly pushed off into the wild grass. While I was at lunch I heard a sound, and there he was, looking up at me from the path a few feet away. "An uninvited guest," I said; "but come on." He hesitated, and then turned aside into the bracken; he would wait till I had finished and had gone to sleep, or had moved off.

How much less wit have such animals,—animals like the porcupine, opossum, skunk, turtle,—that nature has armed against all foes, than the animals that have no such ready-made defenses, and are preyed upon by a multitude of enemies! The price paid for being shielded against all danger, for never feeling fear or anxiety, is stupidity. If the porcupine were as vulnerable to its enemies as, say, the woodchuck, it would probably soon come to be as alert and swift of foot as that marmot.

For an hour or more, that afternoon on the mountain top, my attention was attracted by a peculiar continuous sound that seemed to come from far away to the east. I queried with myself, "Is it the sound of some workman in a distant valley hidden by mountains, or is its source nearer by me on the mountain side?" I could not determine. It was not a hammering or a grating or the filing of a saw, though it suggested such sounds. It had a vague, distant, ventriloquial character. In the solitude of the mountain top there was something welcome and pleasing in it. Finally I set out to try to solve the mystery. I had not gone fifty yards from camp when I knew I was near the source of the sound. Presently I saw a porcupine on a log, and as I approached the sound ceased, and the animal moved away. A curious kind of chant he made, or a note of wonder and surprise at my presence on the mountain,—or was he calling together the clan for a midnight raid upon my camp?

I made my bed that night of ferns and balsam boughs under an overhanging rock, where the storm that swept across the mountain just after dark could not reach me. I lay down, rolled in my blankets, with a long staff by my side, in anticipation of visits from the porcupines. In the middle of the night I was awakened, and, looking out of my den, saw a porcupine outlined against the starlit sky. I made a thrust at him with my staff, when, with a grunt or grumble, he disappeared. A little later I was awakened again by the same animal, or another, which I repelled as before. At intervals during the rest of the night they visited me in this way; my sleep was by short stages from one porcupine to another.

These animals are great gnawers. They seem to be specially fond of gnawing any tool or object that has been touched or used by human hands. They would probably have gnawed my shoes or lunch basket or staff had I lain still. A settler at the foot of the mountain told me they used to prove very annoying to him by getting into his cellar or woodshed at night, and indulging their ruling passion by chewing upon his tool-handles or pails or harness. "Kick one of them outdoors," he said, "and in half an hour he is back again." In winter they usually live in trees, gnawing the bark and feeding upon the inner layer. I have seen large hemlocks quite denuded and killed in this way.

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