Fishers among most misunderstood and maligned species in region

  • Fishers are among the most misunderstood and maligned species in the region. COURTESY BILL BYRNE

  • Thomas Decker, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, holds male and female fisher pelts last month. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDREW J. WHITAKER

  • Thomas Decker, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, holds male and female fisher pelts last month. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDREW J. WHITAKER

For the Gazette
Published: 10/12/2016 4:02:26 AM

In my nearly 20 years of providing educational programs to the public on wildlife, there has been one animal that stands out as perhaps the most misunderstood and maligned species in our region — the fisher.

Many people who have attended my presentations about fishers  come with some very standard misconceptions about this animal.

“I have always heard that fishers are vicious, that they hunt and kill cats, and that they have a blood-curdling scream,” said Katy Henderson of Westfield who attended a presentation at the Chesterfield Community Center in September.

I also have had people tell me that they were afraid to cross paths with a fisher as they had heard that the animal attacks people by jumping at their face and going for their eyes, which is absolutely unheard of.

So, what is a fisher?

Contrary to its popularly used nickname of “fisher cat,” a fisher is not remotely related to cats nor does it prey on fish.

Native to North America, the fisher is one of the larger members of the Mustelidae, or weasel, family, and is related to mink, otters, badgers and wolverines.

Due to their shy, elusive and solitary lifestyle, fishers have not been seen by most people, though the animals live in forested regions, and areas with abundant trees that surround both suburban and urban areas throughout the state.

Sporting an elongated body and short legs, rounded ears, small eyes and a pointed snout, the average male fisher weighs between 8 and 15 pounds, and is around 3 feet long from nose to tail tip.

Females are smaller at about 4 to 6 pounds and 2 feet long, and their fur is often darker and more luxurious than the males. The fully furred tail takes up one third of the fisher’s body.

Thomas Decker, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, said these animals come 11 different colors ranging from almost black to light brown and gray. Decker said “the ones here in Massachusetts are typically a chocolate brown.”

With sharp retractable claws, teeth that can puncture, shear and grind, a good sense of smell, hearing and eyesight, great speed, agility and excellent tree-climbing abilities, fishers are built to hunt and are a very effective and efficient predator.

Are they vicious?

“The public perception is that they are very vicious, but they are not. They won’t attack you or your kids and your dog if you are out for a walk in the woods,” Decker said.

Fishers prey on mammals such as squirrels, rabbits, mice and voles, as well as ground-nesting birds, water foul and songbirds. They also eat eggs, berries, fruit and nuts, road kill and other animal remains.

Decker suggests that their perceived ferocity may stem from the fact that they are the only predator in New England that successfully preys on porcupines.

To avoid the quills that are predominantly located on the tail, the fisher will constantly circle the animal, attacking the quill-free head and face, and eventually flipping the porcupine over to expose its unprotected belly.

“Fishers are one of the fastest animals we have in the woods here,” Decker said. “They are faster at going up and down trees than gray squirrels, which happen to be the primary prey for fisher in our region.”

So does being an expert hunter make them the culprits that are responsible for the majority of domestic cats that go missing?

Decker said the tendency to blame fishers for the disappearance of most free-roaming cats is unfounded.

“If you have a free-roaming cat, it is more likely to get hit by a car than eaten by a fisher,” Decker said.

A fisher will eat a cat if the opportunity presents itself, but so will other predators that are common and plentiful in the state, including coyotes. Fishers do not specifically seek out cats for dinner, particularly when easier, more desirable prey like squirrels are available and abundant.

There is no official count for the state’s fisher population, but the state does compile reliable population information using annual data collected from trappers, and sightings by both wildlife professionals and the general public.

Though fishers are found across the state, Decker said they exist in low densities.

Fishers live a solitary lifestyle except during the breeding season. They breed between February and March, but due to a reproductive process called “delayed implantation” they do not deliver their young until 10 to 11 months after mating occurs.

Litters of up to four kits are produced ever year, with two to three being the average litter size. Kits remain with their mother until late summer or early fall.

A fisher’s home range, like any other territorial animal, will depend on age, sex, habitat and prey availability.

“In 10 square miles you might have four fisher: a female, two of her kits, and male whose home range overlaps with hers,” Decker said.

Myth of the scream

“That is a common myth,” Decker said. “People who work with these animals, and who have been around these animals a lot, have never heard a fisher scream.”

Plenty of other common wildlife species do emit a variety of loud hair-raising screams or cries including foxes, raccoons, barn owls and rabbits. Being a common prey item for fisher, people may often mistake the scream of  an injured rabbit, for that of a fisher.

Once locally extinct

The historic range of the fisher was the northern forests in Canada and the United States, as well as forests in the Appalachian, Rocky and Pacific Coast mountains.

Due to over-trapping and extensive deforestation in Massachusetts in the late-18th and early-19th centuries to make way for agriculture, the fisher virtually disappeared from the this state.

Now that many former agricultural areas have returned to mature forests, the fisher has managed to naturally repopulate Massachusetts.

“After about 1910, the fisher began to come back in small populations here and there,” Decker said. “In the mid-1980s they were not found in the southeastern part of the state, but now they have even been seen in green urban areas like the Boston Common,” Decker said.

Living with fishers

To reduce the possibility of problems with fishers and other predators of small mammals, the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife suggests keeping areas around bird feeders clean and securing garbage areas so as not to attract the small animals predators prey upon; keeping rabbits and poultry in tightly secured buildings or hutches; and keeping cats indoors.



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