The View from Heifer Hill: Adventures of Thistle

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In late July, a young porcupine came into my custody. Because a tuft of long pale fur fanned out from his crown, I named him Thistle. In retrospect, Huckleberry might have been a better name, for unlike most orphaned wildlife I care for, this little fellow was perfectly content to be abroad on the great river of life and wanted no coddling. If Thistle is Huck, then I am the Widow Douglas, the guardian, who attempted to "sivilize" him.

Over the first week he learned to enjoy the food I offered, and took some interest in my company and the company of the porcupine puppet that I have used to amuse and comfort other porcupines. Still, when he retired to his "den" for a rest, he would squawk at us in the way of adult porcupines guarding their personal space. When, after three weeks, he began digging by the door of his enclosure, and humming forlornly in the night, I knew he had to be free. The night I opened his door, I camped in the woods nearby. As I was falling asleep, he came over to my tent a few times, humming and sniffing at my face through the screen. In the morning, he was gone.

The next evening, I took a hike to find where the local porcupines were feeding, expecting Thistle would be in that vicinity. Instead I found a scene so strange that my first thought was that a wild boar had been released in the woods. The leaf litter had been dug up in furrows, and in one spot a small pit had been excavated. This digging did not match any I had seen by bears, turkeys, porcupines, squirrels, or deer. In the dim light, as I puzzled over the evidence before me, I found a most unwelcome clue; porcupine quills. The first were embedded in the leaf litter at the base of a stump. Porcupine quills do not become embedded in objects when a porcupine brushes past; they become embedded when a defensive porcupine smacks something with its tail, or when something smacks into the frightened porcupine.

Amidst the scene of mayhem, a few slim saplings had been bitten off at a height of ten inches by the teeth of a carnivore. This looked like damage I had seen inflicted by bears. I had a small light with me and turned it on to look closer. Tiny porcupine quills stuck out of the maple stumps. In the dark, in my condition of maternal alarm, I could only imagine that a bear had somehow blundered into a porcupine, become quilled, and the chaos around me was the result. I expected the worst for both parties. Too dark to see more, and a bit worried about encountering a crazed bear, I headed home.

The next morning, I girded myself to return to the scene. I found little new evidence, but could make a case for either a fisher or coyote creating such a scene.

Late that dreary afternoon, I heard a dog barking in the woods below my house. I hustled down and found the neighbor's hound had treed an unhappy little porcupine. Thistle! After securing the dog, I hurried back and coaxed him down. With my fresh knowledge of the tribulations of the world, I decided to lure him back into the enclosure. Thistle would have none of it. After a few minutes of wrestling with the puppet, he turned and waddled off. He did turn around to look when I beseeched him, in Porcupine, to reconsider. This little porcupine, however, had a destination, and no interest in my concerns.

I am finishing up this column sitting on my doorstep in the dark, hoping that the wayfarer will swing through on his rambles. He does so about once a night. As I wait, I revisit the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and discover that to escape from his rogue father, he faked his own death. I wonder ...

Patti Smith is a naturalist and wildlife rehabilitator at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec.org.


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