Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The fisher cat: Doesn’t fish, isn’t a cat

three sisters preserve fisherWhat’s in a name?  In the case of the Fisher Cat, Pekania pennanti, a low-slung, cat-sized fur-bearing omnivore found throughout the dense pine forests of Northern New York, apparently not much.

The Fisher Cat is not a cat, but rather a member of the weasel family, and they do not fish, although there are records of them eating dead fish found on the side of ponds or lakes.

How did they come by the name, then?

‘Fisher’ is thought to be derived from early European settlers likening the animal to the European polecat, called a ‘fitche’.  As for ‘cat’, the fisher is about the size of a large domestic cat, with a dark brown to black, close-cropped glossy fur coat and a long bushy tail.  It will hold its tail upright when it runs, perhaps making it resemble a cat to some.  Although they don’t climb trees often, they can climb quite well, using their sharp, retractable claws, which are also similar to a cat’s.

Description/Diet/Behavior

The male and female fisher have comparable appearances and overall coloration, but the male is much larger, varying from 35 to 47 inches in length and ranging between eight and thirteen pounds. The female is generally between 30 and 37 inches in length and weighs from four to six pounds.  Their dense, soft fur make them very popular and profitable targets for trappers.  Their coats vary in color from dark chocolate brown to a deep black in winter, lightening considerably in the summer, making winter the prime season for trapping. The thickness of the fur coat also varies with the season, with the winter coat being the densest, and therefore most sought after.

The attractiveness and value of fisher pelts for the fur trade contributed to a decline in the fisher’s range and numbers, which, together with the felling of pine forests for farming and then the subsequent expansion of housing, sped the fisher’s decline.  However, thanks to a gradual shift of human populations from rural farmland to cities and suburbs in the late 1800s into the 1900s,  second and third growth forests began to fill in once-tilled farmland, maturing over the years.  Together with the imposition of carefully monitored trapping seasons and limits, the fisher has now reoccupied its original range and numbers continue to grow.

Although the fisher is an omnivore, it is primarily a carnivore, and a very effective hunter.  Being a solitary animal, it is limited as to the size of its prey, targeting smaller mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, snowshoe hares and birds.  While willing to dine on carrion, such as deer carcasses, and also fruits, berries, mushrooms and other plants, it is ultimately a proficient predator.  In fact, it is one of the very few animals that will target the porcupine, whose long, ominous needle-like quills are generally enough to ward off even the most ferocious would be attackers.

Stories are told that the fisher attacks and kills porcupines by first flipping them onto their backs to reach their soft, quill-less bellies, but that seems to rarely be the case; rather, the fisher repeatedly attacks the unprotected face of the porcupine, biting it over and over, until it is simply too injured to continue to resist.  There are also documented cases of the fisher attacking both bobcat and lynx but given the size disparity (bobcat and lynx being larger), that it not common.  In fact, the bobcat and lynx are among the animals that will prey upon the fisher.  Like the bobcat and lynx, the fisher is crepuscular – it is most active and hunts its prey during twilight and dawn.

Fisher provided by DECWhile pet owners are right to be concerned about predation by fishers on their pets, particularly cats, the actual occurrence of this is rare.  Chickens on the other hand are a preferred food for fishers, and chicken coops need to be carefully guarded if fishers are known to be in the area.

The fisher prefers older pine forests, where it can find denning areas more readily, using hollowed out sections in stumps, fallen logs and tree trunks.  It is a very capable climber, with hind paws that are able to turn almost 180 degrees.  This unusual feature enables the fisher to climb down a tree headfirst – one of the few large mammals that can.  It has five toes on each foot, all with an unsheathed retractable claw, and each paw has large pads with hairs between them, giving them traction on slippery surfaces and the ability to walk easily on snowpack.

Life History

Mating occurs in March or April, and the males and females go their separate ways immediately after.  In a very unusual process, the newly created fertilized egg, called a blastocyst, is not implanted into the pregnant fisher’s womb until almost ten months later in February of the following year.  It is this uncommon and long reproductive cycle that made it difficult to farm fishers for their fur as is done with mink and ermine, other members of the weasel family.

Gestation begins when the blastocyst is implanted, and lasts about fifty days, after which litters of between one and five (and rarely six) baby fishers, called kits, are born.  The female fisher uses hollowed out trees or other protected areas for their dens, and the kits are born completely defenseless, with their eyes and ears sealed shut.  They nurse for up to ten weeks, after which they switch to solid food.  At this point they begin to grow restless, and the mother will push them out of the den after five months.  By the end of a year, they disperse, establishing their own territories in which they lead their solitary lives.  In the summer, when food is more plentiful, the territories tend to be smaller, about three square miles, and in the winter, they expand to about five.  The territories of males and females tend to overlap, encouraging the meeting of the two sexes during mating season.

The fisher lives about seven to ten years in the wild.  While interesting and unusual to see, they will readily attack poultry and there is some evidence that they will occasionally target small pets.  Backyard birdfeeders, while attracting birds, squirrels and chipmunks, also attract fishers, looking to dine on those visitors, particularly the squirrels.  Leaving cat or dogfood outside may attract them as well.  For those fortunate enough to live near or next to New York State’s old growth pine forests, spotting the ‘fisher cat’ may be an increasingly common occurrence, but be cautious, as the fisher is neither a cat nor a fish eater, but is a beautiful, stealthy predator.

Interesting facts
  • In some areas the fisher is called a ‘pekan’ which is its Algonquin name.
  • The fisher is only found in North America and considered to be ‘of least concern’ by the IUCN, with an estimated 100,000 individuals living across its range.
  • The fisher prefers to live in old growth forest with a dense canopy; it will not occupy forests with less than 50% canopy cover

Photo at top courtesy of Lake Placid Land Conservancy. Above: DEC photo.

 

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Bill Rhodes is a retired life sciences and healthcare industry executive. A freelance writer and avid naturalist, he also volunteers time with the NY State Museum's entomology collections and Cornell University, his alma mater.


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43 Responses

  1. ADKresident says:

    I stumbled across 2 very young fishers this year on one of my hiking photo excursions (or maybe they stumbled across me!). I had no idea they were called “kits”. Thx for the info! 👍

  2. Chris says:

    Great, informative article. Wonder why the weird reproduction process? Any other mammals do the same?

    Seems I’ve seen more fishers over the years.

  3. Sally says:

    The second largest member of the weasel family? Aren’t badgers and wolverines members of that family?

  4. Excellent article, but I believe the largest weasel is the Wolverine.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      Sea Otter?

      • Chris says:

        I witnessed a fisher killing a red fox, the fox was wrapped up from behind and the fisher just chewed through the neck till it was dead. I felt bad for the fox, but I’m sure that critter had some of his own not so friendly dinner parties. Nature is indeed very cruel, but so amazingly beautiful.

  5. gabe susice says:

    they will of course eat chickens,but 99% dont come in contact with chickens,

    a bobcat might get a young fisher but that is it. males can get to 18 to 20 pounds.
    there is now alot of fisher in parts of central and western ny. where there were few fishers before. also alot os fisher in the st law. river valley. in the fall they will eat alot of beachnuts,berries and apples when there good amounts of them. they are spread out alot more than this article says. big males dont climb as much in trees as females. big males attack the porcupines.no one i know calls them fisher cats. lol

  6. chris says:

    I was lucky to see my first one recently in Jay NY. It was absolutely stunning. I know from research it was WAAAY larger than average. I thought it was a bear at first. Truly a spiritual experience.

  7. Alex Wilson says:

    Great information—except about fishers being the second-largest member of the weasel family. The second-largest in the Adirondacks, perhaps, but wolverines are significantly larger, and also likely badgers.

  8. I took out the fact about size….also received this email from a reader:
    I am an ecologist at SUNY ESF’s Adirondack Ecological Center. I’m writing to commend your publication of interesting and factual natural history articles on Adirondack wildlife and related topics.

    However, the current scientific name for the fisher is Pekania pennanti. The old name that should be replaced appears here:
    https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2020/11/the-fisher-cat-doesnt-fish-isnt-a-cat.html

    Fishers were moved out of the Martes genus several years ago, though older references still show the former name. Here are two authorities for US species:
    American Society of Mammalogists http://www.mammalogy.org/fisher
    and the federal ITIS website https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=1086061#null

    Thanks for correcting the record.

  9. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Nice article, but full of “mis-information” and disappointing in that respect, particularly since too many people reading it will presume all the information is correct.
    #1- Fisher are definitely not the “second” largest member of the weasel Family and
    that spot goes to the wolverine, which is second only to the “River Otter”
    in “North America”….and the “Sea Otter” along the upper west coast is
    significantly larger than the “River Otter”
    #2- Their claws are only “partially” retractable, unlike a cat which has fully
    retractable claws
    #3- Yes Bobcats/Lynx prey upon “some” smaller fisher, but “turn about/fair
    play”,..fisher are one of the primary predators of young bobcats/lynx left
    unguarded because the mother/female must leave them to hunt for food.
    #4- “Don’t climb trees often”….seriously!??….they climb trees “frequently” and
    particularly the females, which are more agile, etc. They will wipe out nests of
    squirrels with regularity. I’ve personally witnessed a fisher literally “run” straight
    up the side of about a 100′ white pine and it had no clue I was in the
    area/watching. A female fisher can overtake a “marten” in the trees and they
    do prey upon marten, as well, whenever they can!
    #5- As for weights…a heavy female would be abt. 8#, while males have been
    recorded up to 20#

    I’m a trapper and have studied fisher and many other furbearers in that mode and/or as an outdoors naturalist who has observed wildlife more than 70 years. Fisher are indeed fascinating and incredibly capable predators, but let’s get our facts straight…..thank you

  10. Kevin Milcarek says:

    You forgot to mention the fischer’s very peculiar cry …

  11. Jeep says:

    Fur prices are way down on fisher in recent years. I can recall getting well over $100 for high grade females back in the day! Now some well known trappers, including “the Legend ” Johnny Thorpe, VE ” wildcat” Lynch and Oscar Cronk have told me Fisher will prey on newborn Whitetail fawns. I haven’t witnessed this but on 2 separate occasions I have found newborns dead and Fisher tracks at the partially eaten carcass. Now weather they were stillborn, or taken by another predator I dont know? I’ve certainly caught some big enough to accomplish this deed!

  12. Mac says:

    I have a cam in my yard and have had a fisher a few times, one of my favorite animals. The most unusual video of a fisher was a raccoon chasing the fisher, it was incredible the speed of the happening.

  13. David Thomas-Train says:

    Years ago, on a hike up the north side of Giant Mountain near Keene Valley, my dog and i scared off a covey of grouse. The machine gun-like whirring of their wings was startling, but nothing compared to what came next: a snarling, bristling fisher coming toward us out of the underbrush, with the unmistakable gait of a predator about to charge. I took the message and made my fastest-ever bushwhack in the opposite direction, probably farther than necessary. My guess was that the fisher had been stalking the grouse and saw us as competition or as the bumbling and annoying saviors of its quarry.

  14. Ralph Baker says:

    While now living in South Carolina the well written articles on Adirondack issues are devoured. They bring thoughts of backpack trips, canoeing, fishing and Fall leaf trips. I am also a trapper and articles on trapping subjects are especially enjoyed. It is impossible to know too much about the environment. There were no moose when I was walking those woods – perhaps a trip to seek one out is in order. Thanks for opening his door again.

  15. gabe susice says:

    only grey fox climb trees. red fox can not climb trees. mature male fisher will kill
    raccoon if small on occasion.

  16. ADKresident says:

    If only!! I was in the middle of setting up my tripod in the middle of a narrow brook when out of the corner of my eye about 8 ft. away, the 2 “kits” shot out from in between a rock and log! They ran around me in a circle before I could grab my gear, so I just watched them scurry away. They were adorable, about 12-14 inches long with what appeared to be very soft, dark brown coats!

  17. gabe susice says:

    adkresdent are you sure they werent mink?

    • ADKresident says:

      Well gabe susice, I certainly could be mistaken! They could have been mink. From pictures I’ve seen, my first thought was very young fishers. If only my camera was set up….

  18. gabe susice says:

    well adkresident no need to be snotty. where you said you saw them in my
    oinion they were young mink. that area you desribe is EXACTLY were female mink have there litter. as i have only handled in excess of 400 mink and 100 fisher in my live. but i guess you dont want to here from some one with experance.

    • ADKresident says:

      Snotty? Howso? What did I say that was snotty?

      • JohnL says:

        You weren’t snotty at all ADK. Gabe’s got an issue, evidently.
        And don’t forget, he’s handled more than 400 mink and 100 fishers, and even though he wasn’t there to see them, he knows what they were. Now THAT, was snotty.

    • Boreas says:

      I agree the sighting sounds more like mink – they are a very common sighting when stream fishing. But I fail to see any snotty exchange.

  19. Jeep says:

    Maybe the Dingo got the baby??

  20. Joan bond says:

    So why r they really trapping and killing them?

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