What are fisher cats, the most misleadingly-named animals out there?


One of the more obscure animals out there, fisher cats (Pekania pennanti) or ‘fishers’, in short, are endemic predators to North America. Despite the name, these animals are not cats, and they do not fish. They are, however, moving into a lot of urban and suburban areas across the USA.

Image credits of USFWS Pacific Southwest Region / Flickr.

Fisher cats are slim, short-legged mammals that resemble weasels or small wolverines. They can grow to about 145 centimeters in length (4 ft 9 in) including the tail. They’re covered in dark-brown fur, which is glossy and thick in the winter, and more mottled in the summer. They have rounded ears, and overall look quite cute and cuddly. Don’t let that fool you, however: fisher cats have vicious, retractable claws, and are quite fearsome predators for their size.

The species is endemic to various areas of North America. New England, Tennessee, the Great Lakes area, and the northern stretches of the Rocky Mountains all house populations of fisher cats. Smaller populations have also been reported in California, the southern Sierra Nevada, and the west coast of Oregon. The boreal forests of Canada also make great homes for these mammals.

The cat that’s not a cat

Taxonomically speaking, fisher cats are closely related to martens, being part of the Mustelidae family. This is the largest family in the order of Caniformia (‘dog-like’ animals) and the greater order Carnivora (meat-eaters). As such, they’re part of the most successful and rich group of predators on the planet.

Despite this taxonomic allegiance to the group Carnivora, fisher cats are omnivorous. They will happily hunt a wide range of animals of comparable size to them. They are of the very few animals that even attempt to hunt porcupines, and do so quite successfully, but prefer to hunt hares. They’re not above scouring the forest floor for plants to eat, however. They generally forage around fallen trees, looking for fruits, mushrooms, nuts, and insects. A bit surprisingly, given their name, fisher cats only very rarely eat fish.

It’s not exactly clear, then, how the animal got its name. Folklore says that fisher cats would steal the fish the early settlers used to bait traps in the Great Lakes region, but this is wholly unconfirmed. More likely, the ‘fisher’ in ‘fisher cat’ comes from ‘fisse’, the Dutch equivalent of the word ‘fitch’, from early settlers in the region. It’s also possible that it draws its roots in the French term ‘fishe’. These words refer to the European polecat or its pelt, respectively; given that fur trade was an important source of income for early settlers, it is likely that fisher cats were prized and sought-after for their pelts, and the species became associated with the polecat, who was raised for fur in Europe.

It’s easy to see why their pelts were so prized. Image via Wikimedia.

However, due to this association, fisher cats have been hunted to extinction in some parts of their natural habitat. Due to a drop in hunted pelts since the Americas were first colonized by Europeans, the animals are making a comeback and their populations are recovering and moving back into the areas they previously inhabited. Despite this, legal harvesting for fur, through trapping, is still one of the main sources of information regarding their numbers at our disposal right now.

A baby fisher cat is called a ‘kit’. Females tend to give birth to litters of one up to four kits at a time in the spring and nurture them until late summer. The kits are sightless and quite helpless at first, but become well able to take care of themselves by summertime and leave in search of their own mates.

How do they live?

Fishers spend most of their time on the ground, and have a marked preference for forested lands compared to other habitats. They’re most often found in boreal or conifer forests, but individuals have been seen in transition forests as well, such as mixed hardwood-conifer forests. They seem to avoid areas where overhead cover isn’t very thick, preferring at least 50% coverage.

Female fisher cats also make their dens in moderately large and large trees when giving birth and rearing their kits. Because of these factors, they’re most likely to be seen in old-growth forests, since heavily-logged or young forests seem not to provide the habitat that fishers like to live in.

Towards the west of the continent, where fires routinely clear forests of fallen trees (the most-liked foraging environments of the fishers), these animals tend to gravitate towards forests adjacent to bodies of water (riparian forests). They also seem to not be fond of heavily snowed areas regardless of geographical location.

Despite their habitat preferences, fisher cats have been seen encrusing ever more deeply into urban landscapes, most likely drawn by the prospect of easy food. While it is still unclear whether fisher cats hunt for pets such as household cats or small dogs, such activities would be within their abilities. Most likely, however, they search for food items discarded in trash cans.

Fisher cats stay away from humans for the most part and avoid contact. They will defend themselves if they feel cornered, however. They are quite small, so the chances of a deadly encounter with a fisher cat are slim to none, but if you ever meet one, don’t be fooled by their cuddly exterior. Give it space; Their claws and fangs can be quite nasty, and there’s always the risk of infection when dealing with wounds from wildlife.

Today, these furry mammals are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; They are making quite a successful comeback following their historic lows. Still, habitat destruction and human encroachment remain serious issues for the species. Their ever-more-frequent sightings in cities and urban landscapes across North America are a warning sign of an issue wildlife everywhere faces: humans are taking up more space than ever, so they are coming to visit our cities, as well. Depending on what we do in the future, they may be forced to set up shop here for good.

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