by Rebecca Chillrud
February 12, 2020
These adorably furry predators may be born blind and take around 50 days to open their eyes, but fishers (Pekania pennanti) grow into quite the hunters. These dark brown critters are about the size of house cats and can be found prowling coniferous forests throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Though it is often referred to as the “fisher cat,” the fisher is not a feline—it’s part of the weasel family. Fisher is a misnomer for another reason as well: the fisher isn’t known to eat fish. Instead, it feeds on birds, frogs, dead animals (carrion) and small mammals including squirrels, mice and shrews. The name actually comes from “fitch,” which refers to a polecat—a similar-looking mammal native to parts of Europe and Asia.
When searching for a meal, these little hunters are clever enough to find their way around some formidable spikes. Fishers are one of the few predators of porcupines. An adult North American porcupine has more than 30,000 quills: sharp, stiff hairs with hundreds of tiny barbs located at the tip. While porcupines cannot throw their quills, they detach easily and can lodge themselves into the skin of predators, where the barbs make them difficult to remove. To avoid being pricked, fishers flip the porcupines over to eat them.
Fisher populations were once seriously threatened due to habitat loss, as the large stretches of coniferous forests they prefer became developed or fragmented. Much of the land in this area has been developed as the population of the region increases. Fortunately, reforestation efforts have allowed them to rebound in much of their eastern range, which runs from Canada down to West Virginia. Out west, fishers are in more trouble—the Sierra Nevada population is still so low, it has been proposed for listing as an endangered species.