This post is part of a series contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.
There is a cloak and dagger figure among us. At least that is his reputation. He is more often silent and hidden by day, prowling mostly under cover of darkness and, occasionally, betrays his whereabouts with a genuine, blood-curdling scream.
His name is Martes pennanti, alias “the Black Cat.” Other names are Fisher and Fisher Cat. To him have been credited the sinister disappearances of Figaro, Lucifer, Ragamuffin, Muckleroy, Tiger and Tabby – all members of the Felis domesticus clan.
The poor fellow has been much-maligned. He, admittedly, has a rather ragged disposition, coming from that roughneck weasel family, but after spending generations of time sidestepping the flashing jaws of steel traps and having half the countryside out after his hide, he’s got good reason to be a bit rowdy.
Nearly the size of a fox, the slim but powerful fisher cat has a grizzled dark brown coat and black legs and tail. The tail is bushy, ears rounded. He also has a very well-developed scent gland, which serves territorial and breeding functions. His pelt was widely sought after in years past, and so the fisher was nearly trapped out. His comeback in recent times however has resulted in lots of sightings and reports of the sly devil stealing into people’s yards to carry off the fat family cat.
The fisher can occasionally be heard screaming in the night. It’s an explosive scream, sounding for all the world like a woman in a great deal of distress, which fact hardly gains its author much favorable regard from the local country folk, who come lurching out of their beds at the cry of this mysterious and fascinating animal.
The fisher is a loner, except during mating season. Most waking hours are spent on the move, scrounging up a meal whenever possible. One night’s prowl can cover 10 miles or more. The search for food is thorough too. Each fallen tree is looked under, every fir thicket investigated. A stone wall can be a smorgasbord of small rodents.
Despite the fisher’s name, fish are not the main item on his menu. He does not catch fish. He does however catch rabbits, hares, red and flying squirrels, mice, voles, shrews, frogs and small birds.
His great favorite is the porcupine. How do you eat a porcupine? From the ground up. The fisher harasses his victim until he manages to get at the porky’s belly, where there are no quills. Contrary to the popular theory that he is totally immune to this spiny defense, however, the fisher ingests many quills, and they do not all pass through him in the right direction. Specimens have been examined with spines piercing their flesh to the bones and working through the walls of their digestive tracts. Though seldom fatal, such aggravation must throw a cloud over the pleasure of eating out.
The fisher is not above dining on carrion either. A beaver or a deer carcass can keep him happy for several days. He is an opportunist. Quick on the ground, and just as able in the trees, this fellow takes his meals as they come.
Early spring is when Fishers bear their young in a rocky den or a hollow tree after a gestation period of 352 days! Mating occurs a few days later, but the fertilized eggs lie dormant for 9 or 10 months before they begin to develop. The young, usually three, are born blind. They grow rapidly and stay with their mother until late fall.
Populations of fishers rise and fall with little regularity, largely in response to trapping pressure and food availability. They are forest dwellers and so are much affected by man’s activities in the woods. The fisher is a longtime native and must be accepted as such. To those who would question his approach to life, simply keep in mind he has his reputation to maintain.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.
Bottom fisher photo courtesy of the USFWS via Flickr.