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.
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.