Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Adding to my mammal life list while driving home


By CHERYL KIMBALL | April 29. 2017 2:31AM

A fisher cat at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. (Courtesy Roger Amsden/Union Leader file photo)








 
A COUPLE OF months ago in Nature Talks, I discussed the concept of keeping a mammal life list, like many of us do with birds. I added a mammal to my life list a few days ago: the fisher (Martes pennanti). As I drove a back road home in mid-afternoon, a fisher ran across the road a couple hundred yards in front of my car. It was plenty of distance to both avoid hitting the animal and to get a nice look at it as it lumbered across the road and down a long dirt driveway, its body following its head like an upholstered Slinky. If there hadn’t been a car right behind me I would have stopped and watched it longer.

This vantage point did not allow me to get a look at the fisher’s face but it did allow a nice long look at its magnificent body. Its fur was dense and cinnamon brown with some black. The fisher held its thick long tail straight out behind it. And it looked very healthy.

I immediately knew this was no animal I had ever seen before. If I were to describe it without knowing anything about the animal, I would describe it as a weasel on steroids — same body type but thicker, heavier coat, and all around just bigger than its cousins. Those cousins, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game, are in fact the weasel, mink, marten and otter.

Fishers get a pretty bad rap. Although commonly known as “fisher cats” in this part of the country, this name technically refers not to the animal but the minor league baseball team located in Manchester. Fishers are not in any way related to the feline family and it has been fairly known that fishers seldom eat cats.

The 2015 edition of the “Peterson Field Guide to Finding Mammals” (by Vladimer Dinets) has this interesting thing to say about mammals in our region: “Mammal watching in the northeastern U.S. is a bit different from the rest of the continent. This area is highly urbanized, and its fauna is impoverished by recent glaciation and the all-out extermination of wildlife following the European colonization, although some species such as Fisher and Northern River Otter are slowly coming back now.”

Wildlife biologist Eric P. Orff, in an article on the nhfishandwildlife.com site, “The Fisher: New Hampshire’s Rodney Dangerfield,” describes the fisher as yet another animal that was once nearly driven from the state because of hunting/trapping and habitat loss. Finally in the later 1970s, the population in New Hampshire of the solitary fisher became more steady in numbers and trapping was more heavily regulated. They are now considered abundant and, according to Orff’s article, N.H. Fish & Game “closely monitors changes in population levels to assure there won’t be another collapse in the number of fishers in the state.”

One of the other things the fisher is notorious for is a screaming vocalization. Like their taste for house cats, this too is up for debate. A website called “askanaturalist.com” claims that many of the instances when people think they are hearing a fisher are in fact red foxes. I have seen and heard red foxes making screaming noises that almost sound like a very upset human baby. One day I heard this sound over the hill in the horse area; I walked up the hill to see what was happening. A red fox was vocalizing at one of my barn cats who was attempting to return home. I chased the fox away, the cat made its way home, and I was able to prove to myself that this noise I had heard many times was indeed a fox and not a fisher.

This was not the assumption one spring evening several years ago when a young woman appeared at our front door when she had been walking along the road past our house and heard a screaming noise not far into the woods. She assumed it was a fisher, bolted over our stone wall, and knocked on the front door. Again, it was likely a fox and in either case was unlikely to have any interest in her, but I was happy to give her a ride the rest of the way home.

All reports lead to the realization that fishers can be quite vicious. They are, after all, one of the few predators of the porcupine. So while I definitely would not want to confront a fisher in a confined area or have my dog go after one out in the woods, it was still very cool to see this magnificent creature in the flesh.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.
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