The Fisher of the Forest

The Fisher of the Forest

The Last Green Valley is still 84 percent forest and farms, undeveloped land with most of our natural habitat in woodlands. Our region is home to an abundance of wildlife and today we’ll examine the fisher, one of our most energetic and unique forest dwellers.

According to the CT DEEP Fisher Fact Sheet, the fisher is a member of the Mustelidae (weasel) family. The early settlers in America mistook it for the polecat, a similar European species. In French, the pelt of a polecat is called “fishe,” “fisheux” or “fichet,” which may help explain why settlers named the American animal “fisher.” I have frequently heard it called a “fisher cat,” but it is not a member of the feline family.

Fishers rely on large tracts of mature, deciduous and coniferous forest for food and shelter, and are found here in The Last Green Valley because they prefer the type of woodland habitat that dominates our landscape.

Once common in our region, by the 19th century they became scarce due to loss of preferred forest habitat from logging and clearing for agriculture. At the beginning of the last century, fishers were considered extirpated from the state, however during the past 100 years, reforestation and changes in land use practices have restored the fishers’ historic range and preferred habitat, and they have returned to the northeastern section of the state.

Even though northwestern Connecticut has forested lands, fishers did not return on their own to that region. The population in the northeast did not move west due to the lack of the fishers’ preferred forest habitat. The developed landscape and agricultural lands of the Connecticut River Valley were a barrier for their movement, so in 1988 CT DEEP Wildlife Division undertook a project to reintroduce this native mammal into northwestern Connecticut. The result of this project is a viable, self-sustaining population in the northwest region of the state.

The male fisher can weigh up to 14 lbs. and be 40 inches long. The female can grow to 6 lbs. and 30 inches long. The body of the fisher is long and slender with short legs and a long bushy tail. They are usually dark brown, almost black, with the head and shoulders lighter with an almost grizzled appearance.

Fishers are skilled predators and feed primarily on squirrels, rabbits and small rodents such as mice and voles. They will eat birds, frogs, carrion, fruits and nuts. Unlike its cousin the river otter, the fisher does not like water — though it will scavenge a dead fish if it finds one. Fishers also have the unique ability to prey on porcupines. They avoid the painful quills by quickly and repeatedly biting the porcupine’s nose, rendering it confused and bloody, then flipping it onto its back, exposing the soft stomach and vital organs. Fishers also have a reputation as killers of household pets such as cats and small dogs. While they certainly have the ability and ferocity to catch and eat cats and small dogs, they much prefer small rodents and squirrels.

Fishers seldom travel in the open and are usually nocturnal. With five toes on each foot and semi-retractable claws, the fisher is an excellent climber and prefers to make its nest for rearing young in tree cavities. Like other members of the weasel family, the fisher has a high metabolism and almost tireless hunting skills.

I am fortunate to have encountered a fisher on more than one occasion and have always come away amazed by this little ball of energy and ferocity. Several winters ago, I encountered a fisher hunting along the edges of a frozen beaver pond. In and out it went, zigging here and there searching crevices between the logs and sticks of the beaver lodge. I called out to see if it would stop its frenetic movement long enough for me to snap a picture. It did stop and then got up on its hind legs to get a better look at me. My heart quickened as it began to advance towards me. After approaching about 15 feet in my direction, it determined that I was not a threat, nor was I fit for dinner, and it returned to its task. I didn’t get a picture, but to see the skilled hunter of the forest on the prowl was a thrill I will remember.

During a late February hike at Old Furnace State Park, I discovered tracks of a fisher in the wet snow as it crossed the trail to the top of Half Hill, also known as Ross Cliffs. I was taking the orange blazed trail to the top because it winds through beautiful woods of mixed deciduous and conifer trees and avoids the blue trail’s very steep section below the top. I found those same tracks several times during the hike. The fisher was moving downhill in a straight line cutting over the curving orange trail. Not on the prowl for food like the animal I saw on the frozen beaver pond, this animal knew exactly where it was going.

Later as I made my way down, I discovered the fisher track again near the base of the hill. This time there were two sets of tracks, the previous larger tracks of a male, and the smaller tracks of a female. Together they followed each other into the darkening woods and thick vegetation. This was in late February. Fishers typically use tree cavities for the birth of two to four kits in March and April. From the looks of it, the population increase of these amazing animals will continue.

We are so fortunate to live in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, a region occupied by a diverse number of wild animals. Our home is their home. I hope you’ll join me and together let us care for it, enjoy it and pass it on.

Information for this column was gleaned from the CT DEEP Wildlife Division Fact Sheet on Fishers. It can be found at: https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Fact-Sheets/Fisher

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org for by calling 860-774-3300.

Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.

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