Nature Notes: Fisher
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by Ed Robinson
Thank you to a number of people who responded to the two survey questions at the end of my last article. I asked readers to name their favorite local wildlife species, and to share interesting encounters with wildlife. When several of you described unexpected local meetings with fishers, I decided to do some research on these interesting creatures. While I have never seen a fisher, I always thought of them as elusive creatures of dark conifer forests as found in NY’s Algonquin Park.
When we first moved to Harpswell, I heard stories about fishers in town but discounted them, figuring my leg was being pulled. Several sober-minded Harpswellians have since described very specific encounters with this large member of the mustelid, or weasel, family. Tulle Frazer, a virtuous woman, was startled by a fisher crossing the road near her home in the northwest part of town. Marnie McFarland, a keen observer, insists she witnessed a fisher crossing Bayview Road near my home. Sue Baker, a paragon of truth, saw one in her yard on Lowell’s Cove, and often hears them screeching in the nearby woods. Finally, Bob Weggel of southern Bailey Island also reports fishers as a favorite of his.
As often happens with reclusive wildlife, myths and misconceptions abound with the fisher. First, while it is often referred to colloquially as a “fisher cat,” there is no relationship between fishers and any of the cats. Many people whose house cats and small dogs go missing blame a local fisher, but biologists who examined the stomachs of over 1,000 legally trapped fishers in New Hampshire found cat hair in only one case (more likely, missing pets are snatched by coyotes or bobcats). Finally, fishers have seldom been observed to eat fish even though they are excellent swimmers. The fisher is believed to have been named with the Colonial Dutch word “fisse,” since the fisher resembles a European polecat, and the old French word for the pelt of the polecat is “fiche” or “fichet.”
Historically, fishers lived in a vast stretch of North America, from coast to coast, and from the northern forests of Canada and Alaska to less developed parts of the southern US states. As the western frontiers were opened by pioneers and fur trappers, the lush winter pelt of the fisher was nearly as prized as beaver, resulting in over trapping. When furs were still coveted by fashionable women in the 1970’s, fisher pelts sold for as much as $700, according to the Hudson Bay Company. Fortunately game regulations were put in place and fisher re-introduction efforts were mounted, allowing the species to recover in many areas, including West Virginia and Massachusetts. While it has been proposed for California’s endangered species list, in New England fisher populations are healthy and trappers are allowed to harvest them. Recent auction prices in Maine range from $80-100 per pelt.
Male fishers can grow to 3-4 feet, with a long, bushy tail, and a weight of 8-15 pounds. Females are a foot shorter, and half that weight at maturity. Their color varies from mid brown to black, depending upon genetics, diet and the season. They may have lighter, even white, patches on the head and neck. To see my first fisher, I will have to go nocturnal since they are most active between dusk and dawn. Like squirrels, fishers have rotating ankles that allow them to readily climb trees, where the female will often make her den for safety. They prefer full forest cover for hunting but over the years have adapted to smaller patches of conifers or mixed conifers and hardwood, as found in many parts of Harpswell. While fishers are solitary creatures and avoid human contact, like coyotes and bobcats, they have learned how to live in suburban or even urban areas if desired habitat and food are available.
Fishers are well known for a rare ability to kill porcupines, thus the preference for conifer forests where porcupines hang out. They attack the porcupine around the head, slowly weakening the animal until it dies, allowing the fisher to flip the porcupine for feeding. Sometimes the porcupine has the last laugh, when a fisher receives too many quills during the battle and ends up dying from infection. Other foods include snowshoe hares, chipmunks, pine martens, shrews, insects, nuts, and sometimes fruit and mushrooms. They have often been observed feeding on deer or moose carcasses, which leads to stories that fishers were capable of killing such species, but those fishers were merely feeding on available carrion.
Male fishers cover long distances in their search for food, and in the spring, for females. They may have a range up to 10 square miles, and they leave scent markings with the musk glands at the base of their tail and on the bottom of their rear feet. Breeding takes place in March and April, but the fertilized egg is not deposited into the womb until the following February, when the female begins a gestation period of about 50 days. In late winter between 1 and 6 blind kits are born. They can begin climbing trees within 2 months, but they feed only on mother’s milk until switching to a solid diet sometime in their third month. The juveniles are forced out on their own after 5 months, and at one year old, they are able to begin their own breeding cycles.
Fishers are beautiful animals, with a fascinating life style, and I enjoy the fact that our town still has quiet areas where they can thrive. If you are fortunate enough to encounter a fisher, it is wise to keep your distance. Reports of fishers attacking humans are rare with the most recent reference from 2009 when a small boy in Rhode Island was injured, but any predator can be dangerous if it is injured, sick, hungry or caught by surprise and threatened by your presence. Thanks for reading!