Monday, June 12, 2017

Adirondack Fisher Cats Don’t Fish; Not Cats

fisher catThe “fisher cat” is neither of those things. Doesn’t fish. Isn’t a cat. In fact, a lot more of what people think they know about the fisher is wrong. It’s almost like we made up the animal.

The fisher, Pekania pennanti, is a big forest-dwelling weasel, related to the American marten, and native to North America. The common name has nothing to do with fish, but instead derives from French and Dutch words for the pelt of a European polecat, to which it is distantly related. Native American tribes had their own names for the animal, many of which translate roughly as “big marten.”

Then there’s the idea that the fisher is exclusively a denizen of the Northern Forest, the vast realm of spruce and fir. Not true either. “They live in the suburbs of Boston,” said Susan Morse, a wildlife ecologist, forester, and executive director of the nonprofit Keeping Track.

Their range used to be even more extensive. Fishers once lived through New England down the Appalachian Mountains to North Carolina, through the Ohio Valley and across the upper Midwest and north to the tree line, explained Steve Faccio, a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

But the deep woods of the East were rapidly cleared for farming and the big weasel was heavily trapped for its luxuriant fur. By the late 1800s, the fisher “had been extirpated in most of the Northeast outside of Maine and perhaps northernmost New Hampshire,” said Faccio.

Now the fisher is on its way back. “They’ve returned to much of their former range outside of the southern Appalachians,” Faccio said.

As a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University in the late 1980s, Faccio helped reintroduce fishers to northeastern Connecticut and radio-tracked them to monitor how well they did. Quite well, it turned out. A couple of dozen fishers were released — half pregnant females, the rest males. A few got hit on the roads, and some decamped for Massachusetts, but most stayed put. And reproduced. Today the population is well established, and Connecticut has a fisher trapping season.

Vermont had a similar reintroduction program, said Faccio, which was partly prompted by the desire to control porcupine numbers. Fishers are one of the few predators that will eat the thorny little beast. They attack its face, then flip it on its back to tear open the unprotected belly.

The fisher owes its resurgence partly to the fact that it’s an omnivore. Like bears. Or humans.

“They will feed on anything, from fruit — apples, blackberries, blueberries — to reptiles and amphibians and birds and bird eggs, up to animals the size of porkies,” said Faccio. During his radio tracking work, Faccio found that they took advantage of the abundant gray squirrels of the oak and hickory forests of northeastern Connecticut. “When we would hike in to check on resting fishers, eight out of ten times we would find the tail of a gray squirrel under the tree and the fisher would be sleeping in the squirrel’s nest up in the canopy.”

Fishers can also move. Really move. “They have the ability to disperse pretty long distances in a short time. They have a kind of energy efficient lope. It seems they can lope forever without stopping, unless the snow is deep and powdery,” he said.

Fishers are secretive and avoid humans. They stay in the forest and don’t like to cross open land. In winter, Faccio can find fisher tracks within five minutes of leaving his door. But he has rarely seen the animals.

One other myth about fishers is that they’re partial to house cats. Eating them, that is. In some studies house cat fur has been found in fisher scat. “But there’s probably a lot easier prey for them to deal with,” Faccio said. If Fluffy vanishes, it’s more likely he got taken out by a Toyota than a fisher.

Then there is the screaming. Fishers are famous for screaming. Or, at least famous for being said to scream. “I don’t know of any reputable information that fishers scream. When we had them in captivity they growled or made purring sounds,” said Faccio.

Even if he sees them only rarely, Faccio is grateful for the big weasel’s presence. “I just like knowing they’re out there. It’s another indication that our ecosystems are functioning. Plus I enjoy getting out and following their tracks. You can feel their energy as they go from brush piles to a fallen tree, or lope over to investigate a hollow tree and then go straight to a spot where there are sometimes porkies. It’s always a fun adventure.”

Joe Rankin writes on forests and nature. He lives in Maine. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

8 Responses

  1. Justin Farrell says:

    Quote from the article: (“Then there is the screaming. Fishers are famous for screaming. Or, at least famous for being said to scream. “I don’t know of any reputable information that fishers scream. When we had them in captivity they growled or made purring sounds,” said Faccio.)

    Interseting piece, thanks for sharing! ?
    Several years ago while bushwhacking in the Pharaoh region my dog & I were surprised by two fishers chasing each other, and bouncing around in the forest ahead of us. Once they spotted us, one of the fishers took off running, while the other climbed a nearby tree and began ‘barking’ at us below. No screaming, but more of a high pitched “bark”…a very odd sound from what I remember. I do have photos of the fisher in the tree looking down on us, but I wish that I had recorded the noise it was making. Pretty neat encounter with a rarley seen animal non the less.

  2. Gary Lee says:

    Once saw a fisher take a fawn by biting it’s juggler vein. Also saw where one had a battle with a raccoon and won. Also I have a fisher fishing, catching June suckers at Squaw Lake in the Moose River Area, Hamilton County, NY on my trail camera, along with bear, great blue heron and ravens.

  3. PETER G KLARMAN says:

    We have seen fishers many times near Tioga Point in Raquette – where they ate the entire population of red squirrels – Lake and Long Lake.
    We have even seen one in Northern Mahattan early one AM before traffic built up!
    Peter Klarman
    Bayside, NY

  4. Jaen Martens says:

    My sister’s property in Plymouth Mass has acres of oak forest formerly full of squirrels and now they are nearly gone. “Her” fishercats are aggressive, probably hungry and a great threat to her pets. A red wolf and many coyotes now roam too. She blames the leash laws. Things are still a bit unbalanced it seems.

    • Andre says:

      The squirrel population will be just fine. Just like ungulates when wolves and cougars are around – they just keep themselves out of the “spotlight” so to speak to avoid getting eaten. That’s healthy for the forests.

  5. Edward Stankard says:

    Fishers definitely do scream they make an awful piercing cry that can only be described as a scream. I have a very long really cool story about Fisher cats but to make it extremely short, I live in Tennessee, where nobody has ever even heard of a Fisher cat. 15 years ago I saw what I thought were Panthers that a witch had trained to stand on their hind legs that were making this terrible scream at each other. I thought they were some sort of supernatural thing because I know what I saw (I thought they were cats) and I know they were standing on their hind legs for a very long time. (At least 3 minutes) and they were waaay too big to be house cats but their heads were too small to be Panthers. For 15 years I told this story that NO ONE believed. One day I told it to a girl from Maine and she told me about Fisher cats. I looked them up on you tube and the mystery was finally solved!! Idk if someone had them as pets or what but that’s definitely what they were and it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders lol.

  6. Harold Sperazza says:

    On a XC ski trip through the backwoods we were amazed to watch a snowshoe hare suddenly run across the trail ahead of us followed briskly by a fisher. A second later the same chase continued in the opposite direction. Finally the hare had a bright idea and it ran terrified directly at us, ran right between us and the Fisher stopped, stood up on its hind legs and watched hesitantly and decided running between two humans was not worth the hare. Smart rabbit!

  7. Charlie S says:

    Interesting fisher stories! Rarely have I seen them and when I do they’re usually dead on the road. From what I have gathered from others they are everywhere. In my travels I talk to people and I put to them the question, ‘What kind of animals do you have around here?’ and fisher comes up a lot. Schoharie County is loaded with them, in Delanson, near Gallupville.

    Near West Berne, last October, a man told me there’s lots of them down there.He said he saw more two years ago than he does now. He said to me, “When you’re in the woods early in the morning you see them running around. When I’m in the woods hunting early in the morning I see them running around, climbing up the trees going after squirrels. Matter of fact my wife one time she was walking the dog up the road over here and she saw a whole family of fishers walk in front of her..the male the female and all the little ones.”

    My brother down In Ulster County sees them on his property. My other brother near Gilboa sees them on his property. Seems to me fishers are aplenty.

    Edward Stankard says: “Fishers definitely do scream they make an awful piercing cry that can only be described as a scream.”
    I met a young couple back at the Cascade Pond lean-to some years ago,near the Northville-Placid Trail,and they swear they heard an animal late one night way back in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness that sounded like a baby crying. They didn’t know what it was but it freaked them out. My brother says he heard similar sounds in the woods and he was of the mind that fisher’s make these sounds.

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