The Return of the Fisher

The fisher (Martes pennanti) is a mammal normally found in mature coniferous or mixed forests, from Canada to northern California and the Rocky Mountains in the West, and New England and New York in the eastern United States. A member of the weasel family, the fisher is considered a secretive carnivore, rarely observed in the wild. Folk names include “fisher cat” and “polecat” and may reflect the myth that the fisher is a hybrid of a weasel and cat. About the size of a large housecat, a male fisher usually weighs about eight to ten pounds, while the female is con­siderably smaller. The fisher’s long, agile body and bushy tail are a deep, dark brown, while the head and shoulders are often lighter in color. Some fishers have a white chest patch.

fisherFishers do not fish. Their common name may be derived from “fitch,” the name for the European polecat, another mammal in the weasel family. Or it may stem from early naturalists’ observations that the fisher’s feet are webbed, like its fishing cousin, the otter. (Its webbed feet actually serve as snow­shoes during the winter months.) The fisher is one of a few carnivores known to prey on porcupines, but also dines on snowshoe hare, rabbits, rodents, birds, carrion, fruits and nuts. Adept at climbing trees, it can prey on arboreal species such as flying, red and gray squirrels.

Historically, fishers disappeared from Connecticut in the mid-1800s due to over-trapping and habitat loss. But, remarkably, these denizens of deep forests have returned to our state in the last 20 years. They have moved back into eastern Connecticut from Massachusetts, and were reintroduced into northwestern Connecticut about 15 years ago by the Dept. of Environmental Protection. Populations in our state are doing extremely well, feeding mainly on gray squirrels. Using forested “corridors” they have even made it to the wilder places in our overdeveloped shoreline towns.

Many recent sightings of fishers during daylight hours include one climbing a tree to catch a gray squirrel in North Guilford, as well as one seen ambling along a forested slope one morning while three crows followed it in the tree­tops above. (My guess is that the crows were waiting to claim the scraps left from the fisher’s next meal.) Both these observances were happy coincidences as a fisher passed through a yard and a homeowner was fortunate enough to be gazing out a window. Never underestimate the ability of your home to become the perfect wildlife observation blind. If the animal is unaware of your presence, it is much more likely to behave in a natural manner, and you are much more likely to see some fascinating stories unfold.

Submitted by Cindi Kobak

Photo by Terry Thomas