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Summit Outside: The fisher: a tough little weasel

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Smithsonian/Roger W. Barbour
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I saw a fisher darting around in the snow in the dense wooded area off the Morning Glory Trail at the Breckenridge Nordic Center recently.

It was the size of a fox with a long bushy tail, very dark brown to almost black with thick fur, a long body, short legs, and a pointed short head with small ears.

It was scurrying about in the underbrush, and we got two good sightings.

At first I thought it was a weasel, but it was larger than a weasel, and a weasel is reddish brown and would still be in its winter white.

Then I thought it was probably a pine marten, but it was darker in coloration and larger than a pine marten – and pine martens are largely nocturnal.

Mature male fishers are between 35-47 inches length and weigh between 8-11 pounds while females measure 30-37 inches and weigh between four and 6 pounds. The fisher is smaller than a wolverine. The fisher, also referred to as “fisher cat,” is a member of the weasel family.

Fishers have been found in extensive conifer, old-growth forests and prefer areas with continuous overhead cover with greater than 80 percent coverage and will avoid areas with less than 50 percent coverage, so the forested area near the Morning Glory trail is an ideal habitat. The name “fisher” implies a diet of fish, yet it seldom eats fish.

“Fitchet” is a name derived from the Dutch word ‘visse,’ which means ‘nasty’. A native Indian name for the fisher is “tha cho,” which in Chippewa means “big marten.”

Fishers have five toes on each foot with unsheathed, retractable claws. Their track shows five toes in a 1-3-1 grouping. Their feet are large, allowing them to move about on top of snowpack. On the hind paws there are coarse hairs that grow between the pads and toes. This adds traction when walking on a variety of surfaces.

Their ankle joints are extremely mobile, allowing them to rotate their hind paws almost 180 degrees and to move with agility through tree branches and climb down head-first.

A circular patch of hair on the central pad of their hind paws has a gland that enlarges during mating season and gives off a distinctive odor, which may serve as a means of communication during this period.

They are active year-round but most active during dawn and dusk. Fishers are solitary and only associate with other fishers during mating season.

Fishers prefer to hunt in dense forested areas where they forage among fallen, dead wood.

They are agile climbers, but most of the time they are on the forest floor and feed on a wide variety of small animals, fruits, mushrooms, insects, nuts and berries.

Fishers consider a snowshoe hare a delectable meal and are one of the few predators able to hunt and kill porcupines. A fisher will make repeated biting attacks on the face of a porcupine, killing it after about 25-30 minutes.

Another clue to their presence is that this is the only member of the weasel family whose scat may contain porcupine quills. Fishers have also been observed to feed on the carcasses of deer left by hunters.

The fisher call is high pitched, very shrill, and eerily resembles a woman or child calling for help. They make sounds to mate and attract other fishers, but they also scream out just before or after a kill.

On YouTube there are quite a few fisher cat calls and even a woman imitating a fisher cat.

The reproductive cycle of the fisher lasts almost the entire year. Females make dens in hollow trees. A litter of three to four kits are born in the spring, blind and helpless, and partially covered with fine hair. Kits begin to crawl after about three weeks, open their eyes about seven weeks and start to climb after eight weeks.

They are completely dependent on their mother’s milk for the first eight to 10 weeks. At about five months, the mother pushes them out on their own, and after one year, juveniles will have established their own range.

Fishers have few predators aside from man. They have been trapped since the 18th century for their beautiful fur, which was in such demand that they were driven to near extinction in the early part of the 20th century.

Their fur has been used for scarves and neck pieces. Conservation and protection measures have allowed the species to rebound.

Urban encroachments into the forest habitat of fishers have placed them in close proximity to human habitation, and in recent years there have been reports of fishers attacking small dogs, cats, and even small children.

I could not find any reports of close bonds between fishers and humans, perhaps because by nature they are somewhat nasty, elusive and unsociable.

There is a minor league baseball team in New Hampshire called “Fisher Cats.” There are only a few stories that feature the fisher. In the novel “The Blood Jaguar” by Michael H. Payne, a fisher known only as “Fisher” is the shaman of the talking animal community of Ottersgate and is one of the three main characters seeking to stop the main character from unleashing a plague upon the world. In a children’s story “Ereth’s Birthday,” by Avi there is an encounter between a porcupine and a fisher who is hunting him.

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.


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