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 in lat
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painful operation of having them withdrawn.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
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
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 the 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
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.