The fisher cat: Doesn’t fish, isn’t a cat
[Reprinted from original]
What’s in a name? In the case of the Fisher Cat, Martes 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.
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.
While 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.
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.
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.
It is the second largest member of the weasel family; only the otter is larger.
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.