Wilson Kerr lives in Concord and is an avid outdoorsman and amateur naturalist. This column is the second in a series, designed to help grow awareness of the wonders of nature. In this increasingly fast-paced and technology-packed world, it is important to stop and take in the beauty of our area and the animals that inhabit it. The author hopes this recurring column will be read by families and used as a teaching tool and that you will spend more… Time Outdoors.
Back from the brink of extinction, fishers are increasingly common in our area and this month I hope to deepen your understanding and appreciation of these secretive predators living right here in the woods of Concord.
First of all, the name. Some call them “fisher cats”, but this is not accurate. This moniker likely comes from the fact that early settlers thought they looked like polecats from Europe. Their proper name is just “fisher”. After being nearly wiped out by unregulated trapping by the early 1900’s, they have made a remarkable recovery across the northern US.
Here in New England, along with trapping, widespread deforestation played a big role in the fisher’s decline, as they prefer habitat with at least 80 percent tree cover and forests with larger, mature trees. As the forests of New England have regrown, so has the fisher population.
Fishers have lush dark brown fur and resemble a large weasel – with a long body and thick tail. Their heads and necks have golden guard hairs, adding to their striking looks. Males and females look similar, although females are smaller. Fishers can climb trees but spend most of their time on the forest floor. Did you know: fishers are one of only a few mammals that can rotate their rear ankle bones 180 degrees? This trait allows them to climb down trees while facing forward. Grey squirrels share this rare trait.
While their thick fur makes them look larger, they only weigh about 20 pounds and are not generally considered dangerous to people or pets. Fishers do not form packs or hunt together. Occasionally conflict will occur when they raid a chicken coop, but this is also pretty uncommon. Unlike coyotes, there is scant evidence that fishers pose any threat to pets and they tend to be secretive and keep to themselves.
Despite their name, fishers rarely eat fish and do not live in the water. They are high-energy land animals, constantly hunting to fuel their high metabolisms. As omnivores, they eat both meat and plants, and supplement a diet of small animals like mice, rabbits, turkeys, and squirrels with mushrooms, berries and insects.
Prickly fact: Fishers are one of the only predators that regularly hunt, kill and eat porcupines, by way of a prolonged frontal attack that avoids their sharp quills.
Fishers are curious animals – constantly moving. When I have seen them in the woods (usually at dawn when I am deer hunting), they always seem to be “on a mission”. By that I mean they move through the woods with graceful purpose, always alert. They are impressive to see in-person and I am usually struck by their beauty and the way they “flow” through the forest. They investigate every smell and have a frenetic pace that I find mesmerizing.
Fishers are active year-round (they do not hibernate), but are seldom seen by most because they tend to be “crepuscular”, which means active at night and early dawn, before most of us are awake. Solitary animals, they have a territory of 3-5 miles and males try to stay out of other male’s ranges. The males, however, purposefully overlap their territories with females, to ensure they will cross paths during the brief mating season.
Mating takes place in the spring and females give birth to 1-4 “kits” 50 days later. Dens are usually made in hollow trees and females raise the young alone. The tiny, blind kits nurse on milk for the first 8 weeks and are weaned and on their own within 4-5 months.
Did you know: A popular misconception is that fishers “scream” at night and the web is full of recordings of chilling sounds emanating from the dark woods. The reality is that fishers make only low growls and hisses and these “screaming” sounds are made by red foxes. An online search of red foxes vocalizing will allow you to listen for yourself. It’s actually pretty chilling.
Before I sign off for this month, two other reminders about the natural world…Whitetail deer are breeding now and this period is known as “the rut.” Bucks actively chase does at all hours and these lovestruck Romeos are careless as they cross roadways. Every year, during the rut, deer are hit by cars in our area, injuring the deer and damaging vehicles, so please be especially watchful. Also, as you prepare to toss your Halloween pumpkins, remember that they can be naturally recycled by simply placing them in the woods. Deer, squirrels and other animals love them and it saves them from rotting in landfills.
A rare treat to see, fishers are a predator back from the brink in our area. I hope you and your family will read this together and get out and enjoy this spectacular fall weather as you spend more…Time Outdoors. And I hope you spot a fisher!