Were you told in childhood, as I was told by my elders, that if you came too near a porcupine he might shoot quills at you? And did you wonder, as warily you walked around a porcupine at stone-throwing distance, how he could possibly do it?
Most of our reputable naturalists would curtly answer, "He can't," having long since dismissed quill throwing or shooting as a popular delusion; which might indicate, though one grieves to say it, that when the authorities in any subject thus smile and agree among themselves they cease to observe, and become dogmatists, like the katydids. Witness the following italicized warning, sternly issued in the name of Science: "Porcupines can not shoot their quills, not even for one inch; and the idea that they can—or ever have—is entirely erroneous" (Hornaday, The American Natural History).
The first evidence that porcupines can and do throw quills came to me with the dawnlight of a winter morning in the Ontario wilderness. Most unexpectedly it came, with a great surprise, while I was trailing a pack of timber wolves from their fresh kill to their daybed. My purpose was to catch the wary brutes asleep; and he who attempts a stalk that even Indian hunters call impossible (but they are wrong) should have all his faculties centered on just one thing.
On the up-slope of a hardwood ridge one of the pack—a young dog-wolf or he-wolf as it proved—had turned sharply aside, following his keener nose or livelier curiosity to investigate something that did not interest the old she-wolf, mother of the pack and its invariable leader. My whole care now was to locate that solitary wolf. If he got behind me, when his nose might catch a whiff of the man-scent or his ears the click of a snowshoe, he would warn his packmates.
April 16, 1956
Straight up-wind the dog-wolf led me to where a porcupine had just been killed and partly eaten by a fisher—a beautifully furred hunter of the weasel tribes called "black cat" by the trapper and "Pennant marten" by the bookman. How he had made the kill without getting a throatful of quills was left untold by the snow, but there was no mystery about what came next; he had opened his game from the under side, which has no protective armor. After gorging himself on warm flesh, he had moved leisurely away to some hidden den among the rocks or, more likely, in a hollow log. At sight of me a pair of moose birds, or Canada jays, which had been eating tidbits left by the fisher, flitted up to a branch within arm's length, where they twittered a welcome, it seemed, and then dove back to their feast. Even in winter, by the bye, these fearless, gray-clad birds commonly go two by two; and it is characteristic of the solitary fisher that, unlike a fox, he will not sleep in a log if it is open at both ends.
Tracks of the young wolf told how warily he had circled the kill, as if fearful of getting quills in his feet; then with a single sniff at the outgoing fisher trail he trotted off to rejoin his pack. I was turning away, thankful that the wolves had as yet no suspicion of an enemy on their range, when by chance my eye caught sight of a single quill that stopped me short. Dozens of quills lay in the trampled snow, unnoticed because they had nothing to say; but this one quill was like a signboard telling me something that one ought to heed. There it stood, like a tiny arrow in the butt or target, its point embedded in a snow-crusted stump, at a distance of three or four feet from the nearest footprint.
My first conclusion, that a vagrant breeze might have blown the quill across the untracked snow, was put aside for two convincing reasons. At the time of the kill, as now, the wind was so near stilled that one had to hold up a moistened finger to feel for it; and in such densely forested country even a gale in the treetops has very little force or direction close to the ground. No, that quill had been thrown point first, and only the porcupine could have thrown it. But how?
On later winter or summer outings I chased, cornered, poked and otherwise bedeviled many a porcupine in the hope of making him show me how quill throwing was done. Possibly by the tension and release of some mysterious skin mechanism, I imagined; and if that appears to you like a wild surmise, remember how the larvae of certain fruit flies, wingless and footless, can hurl themselves bodily through the air with the agility of a cheese hopper. All my inquisitions, which were many, proved vain for the simple reason that no wild animal acts naturally when you make him the victim of artificial experiments. It is a lunatic way to measure his wit by first scaring all the wits out of him.
The most puzzling thing about my own futile experiments was that, on my way home, I often found a quill stuck in my clothes or pricking my skin, as if the porcupine had thrown it when I was not looking. So the years passed, and I had almost forgotten my little problem when a porcupine whose dull wits were all in working order gave me the answer, unasked.
The place was a deserted lumber camp near Big Pine Pond in Maine, and if there be anywhere a place more lonely, more repellent, more spooky than an abandoned lumber camp, one has yet to find it. While passing through the desolate yard, hurrying because the hour was late and my camp miles away, I was stopped in my tracks by a subdued whining, followed by a louder scratching as of teeth or claws on wood. These queer sounds came from a windowless shed or dingle attached to one of the log buildings. Its door had been so hung as to open by a push, and a little off-balance so as to close by its own weight. Some animal or other that had pushed his way into the dingle was now bemoaning his lot, as vainly he tried to claw his way out.
On hearing or sensing my approach the trapped creature ceased his plaint; the dingle became dumb as a stone; the wilderness silence, which in summer is horizon wide, drew in like a tightening noose, as it does when the winter cold becomes intense. Except for a cased fishing rod I had no weapon, and wanted none; but because the unknown in any shape or shapelessness is both challenge and warning, one went catfootedly, not knowing what bear or skunk or bobcat might be waiting inside, cornered and therefore dangerous.
SEES QUILLS THROWN
Slowly, inch by inch, the door opened half way. More slowly I edged in, only to stand stock still; which is the most surprising thing you can do to a wild animal. At first, with eyes momentarily blinded by the semidarkness, I could see only a dark bulk on the floor, formless, motionless. Cautiously a moccasined foot reached out to touch the thing, and on the instant I was acutely aware of four rather startling sensations—of a snappy motion underfoot, a sharp pain-in my ankle, a scratched cheek and a tinkling sound on the roof of cedar splits over my head. Completely mystified now I slammed the door wide open, letting in a flood of light which gave me all the answers.
The dark bulk on the floor was a porcupine, uncommonly large, his head turned away from me, as always he turns it from an enemy. At the touch of my foot he had struck upward with his armored tail, and missed. So quickly that it seemed instantaneously, he struck again sidewise, and hit. With the upward flip of his tail one quill grazed my cheek; another stuck in my hat brim, its shaft hanging in front of my nose; three more clung by their barbed tips to the cedar splits, so lightly that a finger touch dislodged them. With the sidewise blow a dozen or more quills (not counted) were driven into the tough moccasin leather; and four, as I had good reason to remember when I pulled them out, were more deeply embedded in my tender skin.
Here, beyond any doubt of mine, a porcupine had thrown quills from the dingle floor to its roof, a distance of over six feet. To clinch the matter I tapped his nose with the rod case when he started for the door, which made him turn and bristle up again. As my foot reached out a second time he struck at it before I was conscious of touching him. Plainly then my eye caught the insectlike glint of flying quills, and to my ear came a faintly tinkling sound as of sand tossed against the cedar roof. So my question was at last answered: a porcupine throws quills from his tail. Now for the natural and therefore reasonable explanation.
On the back and sides of a porcupine are multitudes of quills which slant backward when he feels at ease, and are hidden under a mop of hair. The upper side of his tail—hairless and flattened like a beaver's tail but much smaller—is completely covered with shorter quills arranged, points outward, in a crisscross or crazy-quilt pattern. Quills of body and tail alike are so lightly attached to the skin that they pull out and begin, by reason of back-slanting barbs, their slow but sure penetration of any mouth or paw or hand that rudely touches them.
All this has long been familiar to naturalists, the two ignored factors being that porcupine armor is frequently renewed, as a growing crab sheds his shell, and that as new quills push up through the skin the old quills loosen and fall out. Evidence of the shedding may be found wherever porcupines assemble. At a time of new quill growth, any flip-up of a porcupine's tail would of a certainty send some of its quills flying. In other words, the old folklore of quill shooting is soundly based upon a natural fact.
Two conditions are necessary if you would see this queer "shooting" for yourself: that the porcupine be under attack by an enemy, and that your whole attention be given to his stubby tail. He climbs a tree for refuge whenever he can; but being slow of wit and clumsy of body, he is often caught on the ground, where his reaction is invariable. Turning back-to, he puts his unprotected head against a tree or rock, or down between his forelegs, and rolls his body into a huge chestnut bur with its myriad points bristled out in all directions. Meanwhile his tail is flattened close to the ground, so quiet, so apparently harmless that no enemy pays any attention to this ready weapon until it hits him.
I was painfully reminded of this ever-ready weapon one day while a small porcupine was eating salt from my hand. Gently the other hand moved over his back, feeling for unbristled quills, until it reached the rump, when the tail lashed out before I could jerk my exploring hand away. A purely involuntary or reflex blow, I think.
Since then two letters have come to me, one from an experimental laboratory, the other from a woodsman who had a porcupine that he was trying to tame. Each puzzled inquirer wanted to know why, on some mornings, he found fresh quills outside the porcupine's cage of chicken wire. The obvious answer was that during the night some trouble-seeking dog had come near when the porcupine was trying to get out of the cage; either that or else a gusty wind had blown loose wire against him and he struck at it as readily as he had struck a rolling rock. In either case the flick of his tail would throw a few quills through the wire mesh.
An amusing feature of quill shooting is that it might surprise the porcupine even more than it surprises the many naturalists who have doubted or denied it. He probably does not know that he is using his tail as a sling shot; nor would it help him if he did know. With his back turned and eyes to the ground he cannot aim his quills or even see whither they go. Driven by a muscular tail into soft flesh they strike deep; flung off aimlessly into the air they are practically harmless. My only suggestion to one who would monkey with a porcupine's tail is this: wear tough gloves on your hands and glasses to protect your eyes.
This article and others collected from the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED series of Dr. Long essays will be published in book form by Doubleday & Company, Inc. this June as The Spirit of the Wild.