“There,” said Mother Nature, pointing to Prickly Porky the Porcupine, “is the next to largest member of your order, which is?”
“Order of Rodents,” piped up Striped Chipmunk.
“He is the next to largest and very good at escaping predators,” continued Mother Nature.
“Actually, escaping his predators is no real credit to him. They are only too glad to keep out of his way; he doesn’t have to fear anybody,” said Chatterer the Red Squirrel to his cousin, Happy Jack.
His remark didn’t escape the keen ears of Mother Nature. “Are you sure about that?” she asked. “Well there is Pekan the Fisher”
She was interrupted by a great rattling on the old stump. Everybody turned to look. There was Prickly Porky backing down as fast as he could, which wasn’t fast at all, and rattling his thousand little spears as he did so. It was really very funny. Everybody had to laugh, even Mother Nature. You see, it was plain that he was in a great hurry, yet every movement was slow and clackety.
“Well, Prickly Porky, what does this mean? Where are you going?” asked Mother Nature.
Prickly Porky turned his eyes towards her, and in them was a troubled, worried look. “Where’s Pekan the Fisher?” he asked, and his voice shook a little with something very much like fear.
Mother Nature understood instantly. When she had said, “Well there is Pekan the Fisher,” Prickly Porky had waited to hear no more. He had instantly thought that she meant that Pekan was right there somewhere. “It’s all right, Prickly Porky,” she said. “Pekan isn’t anywhere around here, so climb back on that stump and no need to worry. Chatterer had just said that you didn’t have to fear anybody and I was starting to explain that actually you do, that despite your thousand little spears you have reason to fear Pekan the Fisher.”
Prickly Porky shivered and this made the thousand little spears in his coat rattle. It was such a surprising thing to see Prickly Porky actually afraid that the other little folks almost doubted their own eyes. “Are you quite sure that Pekan isn’t anywhere around?” asked Prickly Porky, and his voice still shook.
“Quite sure,” replied Mother Nature. “If he were I wouldn’t allow him to hurt you. You ought to know that. Now sit up so that every one can get a good look at you.”
Prickly Porky sat up, and the others gathered around the foot of the stump to look at him.
He was a little bigger than Bobby Coon and his body was thick and heavy-looking. His back humped up like an arch. His head was rather small for the size of his body, short and rather round. His neck was even shorter. His eyes were small and it was plain that he couldn’t see far, or clearly unless what he was looking at was close at hand. His ears were small and nearly hidden in hair. His front teeth, the gnawing teeth which showed him to be a Rodent, were very large and bright orange. His legs were short and stout. He had four toes on each front foot and five on each hind foot, and these were armed with quite long, stout claws.
The oddest thing and the most interesting thing about Prickly Porky was his coat. Not one among the other four-legged folk of the Green Forest has a coat anything like his. Most of them have soft, short under fur protected and more or less hidden by longer, coarser hair. Prickly Porky had the long coarse hair and on his back it was very long and coarse, brownish-black in color up to the tips, which were white. Under this long hair was some soft woolly fur, and what long hair he had hid chiefly was an array of little spears called quills. They were white to the tips, which were dark and very, very sharply pointed. All down the sides were tiny barbs, so small as hardly to be seen. On his head the quills were about an inch long and on his back they were four inches long, becoming shorter towards the tail. His tail was rather short, stout, and covered with short quills.
As he sat there on that old stump some of Prickly Porky’s little spears could be seen peeping out from the long hair on his back, although they didn’t look particularly dangerous. Peter Rabbit suddenly made a discovery. “Why!” he exclaimed. “He hasn’t any little spears on the under side of him!”
“I wondered who would be the first to notice that,” said Mother Nature. “No, Prickly Porky hasn’t any little spears underneath, and Pekan the Fisher has found that out. He knows that if he can turn Prickly Porky on his back he can attack him without much danger from those little spears, and he has learned how to do that very thing. That is why Prickly Porky is afraid of him. Now, Prickly Porky, climb down off that stump and show these little four-legged folks what you do when a predator comes near.”
Grumbling and growling, Prickly Porky climbed down to the ground. Then he tucked his head down between his front paws and suddenly the thousand little spears appeared all over him, pointing in every direction until he looked like a giant chestnut burr. Then he began to thrash his tail from side to side.
“What is he doing that for?” asked Johnny Chuck, looking rather puzzled.
“Go near enough to be hit by it, and you’ll understand,” said Mother Nature. “That is his one weapon. Whoever is hit by that tail will find himself full of those little spears and will take care never to go near Prickly Porky again. Once those little spears have entered the skin, they keep working in deeper and deeper, and more than one of his predators has been killed by them. On account of those tiny barbs they are hard to pull out, and pulling them out hurts dreadfully. Just try one and see.”
No one was anxious to try, so Mother Nature paused only a moment. “You will notice that he moves that tail quickly,” she continued. “It is the only thing about him which is quick. When he has a chance, in time of danger, he likes to get his head under a log or rock, instead of putting it between his paws as he is doing now. Then he plants his feet firmly and waits for a chance to use that tail.”
“Is it true that he can throw those little spears at folks?” asked Peter.
Mother Nature shook her head. “There isn’t a word of truth in it,” she declared. “That story probably was started by some one who was hit by his tail, and it was done so quickly that the victim didn’t see the tail move and so thought the little spears were thrown at him.”
“How does he make all those little spears stand up that way?” asked Jumper the Hare.
“He has a special set of muscles for just that purpose,” explained Mother Nature.
“When those quills stick into someone they must pull out of Prickly Porky’s own skin; I should think that would hurt him,” spoke up Striped Chipmunk.
“Not at all,” replied Mother Nature. “They are very loosely fastened in his skin and come out at the least little pull. New ones grow to take the place of those he loses.”
“Also notice that he puts his whole foot flat on the ground just as Buster Bear and Bobby Coon do. Very few animals do this, and those that do are said to be plantigrade. Now, Prickly Porky, tell us what you eat and where you make your home, and that will end today’s session.”
“I eat bark, twigs and leaves mostly,” said Prickly Porky. “I like hemlock best of all, and also eat poplar, pine and other trees for a change. Sometimes I stay in a tree for days until I have stripped it of all its bark and leaves. I don’t see any sense in moving about any more than is necessary.”
“Does that kill the tree?” exclaimed Peter Rabbit.
“Well, maybe, what of it?” replied Prickly Porky. “There are plenty of trees. In summer I like lily pads and always get them when I can.”
“Can you swim?” asked Peter eagerly.
“Of course,” grunted Prickly Porky.
“I never see you out on the Green Meadows,” said Peter.
“And you never will,” replied Prickly Porky. “The Green Forest is for me every time. Summer or winter, I’m at home there.”
“Don’t you sleep through the cold weather the way Buster Bear and I do?” asked Johnny Chuck.
“No, cold weather doesn’t bother me. I like it, ” said Prickly Porky. “I have the Green Forest pretty much to myself then. I like to be alone. And as long as there are trees, there is plenty to eat. I sleep a great deal in the daytime because I like night best.”
“What about your home?” asked Happy Jack.
“Home is wherever I happen to be, most of the time, and Mrs. Porky has a home in a hollow log or a cave or under the roots of a tree where the babies are born.”
“You might add that those babies are big for the size of their mother and have a full supply of quills when they are born,” said Mother Nature. “And you might like to mention how fond of salt you are. Your fear of Pekan the Fisher we all saw. I might add that Puma the Panther is to be feared at times, and when he is very hungry Buster Bear will take a chance on turning you on your back. By the way, don’t any of you call Prickly Porky a Hedgehog. He isn’t anything of the kind. He is sometimes called a Quill Pig, although his real name, Porcupine, is best. He has no near relatives.”
“Tomorrow morning, instead of meeting here, we’ll hold our session on the shore of the pond that Paddy the Beaver has made.”
- What do people actually mean when they say ” that person was as prickly as a porcupine”?
- What other animals eat bark, twigs, and leaves just like a porcupine? I’ll get you started by naming goats(!) as fantastic eaters of bark and leaves. How many more animals can you list?
- *Start “branching out” into other topics mentioned by Prickly Porky such as the hemlock tree as his favorite food. What does a hemlock tree look like? What size cones does it have and who eats the seeds within them? How are the branches arranged to shed the snow or shelter birds? What is the color of the foliage? Does this change with the seasons?
- Visit this LINK to the Mass Audubon Society for more information and photos of porcupines.
Prompts with a * are inspired by or found in the Handbook of Nature Study written by Anna Botsford Comstock, a professor at Cornell University, focusing on flora & fauna in the Northeast in 1911.