Today, Connecticut has a viable fisher cat population over the entire state. This hasn’t always been the case, though. For a time, they were extirpated from the state. Fisher cats or fishers are a native species in Connecticut, just as they are to all of New England.
Historical Decline of Fisher Cats in Connecticut
But in the 19th century, fisher populations in Connecticut declined. This was primarily due to habitat loss. Logging and converting land to agricultural use were big factors. Over-trapping also put a large bite on fisher cat populations. By the 1900s, they had vanished from the state.
Fisher Cat Population Recovery
Land-use changes in the 20th century fostered reforestation. This improved fisher cat habitat in parts of their historic range. At this point, Fisher populations naturally expanded into northeastern Connecticut from Massachusetts.
But northwestern Connecticut remained isolated from the fisher population in the northeast. Agricultural lands in the Connecticut River Valley prevented westward population expansion. Moreover, sparse fisher populations in eastern Massachusetts prevented population expansion from that direction.
Reintroduction Efforts by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
In 1988, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection set out to remedy this. They initiated a project to reintroduce fishers in the northwest. They used funds from wild turkeys trapped in Connecticut and released in Maine. With this, they bought fishers from trappers in New Hampshire and Vermont.
These fishers underwent a “soft release” in northwestern Connecticut. In other words, they were penned and fed at the release site for a couple of weeks. After the complete release, Biologists tracked them via radio and snow. They found that the animals had high survival rates and had successfully reproduced. This project established a self-sustaining fisher population in western Connecticut. The fishers in eastern Connecticut are a result of natural range expansion. Source
Fisher Cat’s Characteristics
The fisher cat or fisher (Martes pennanti) is a large member of the weasel family (Mustelidae). Other mustelids include marten, weasels, mink, and otters.
Fishers live in the northern forests of North America. Their range extends from southeast Alaska east to Hudson Bay. It also extends south into the northern forest of the contiguous United States.
These wild animals have various common names, such as black cat, tree otter, tree fox, or pekan. True to its moniker, it bears a slight resemblance to a large, long-bodied domestic black cat.
The fisher most resembles the marten (Martes americana) but is larger in size. They are long, thin-bodied animals with low rounded ears and a tapered muzzle. They also have a long, bushy tail, which is about a third of their total length.
Fisher cats measure about 2 feet in length. Adult males typically weigh between 8 and 16 pounds. Adult females are generally lighter, weighing between 4 and 6 pounds. Razor-sharp teeth and sharp, semi-retractable claws make the fisher a formidable predator.
They have 38 teeth. These include 4 sharp canines and 34 flat-topped molars, which are useful for grinding.
Fishers are equipped to hunt either in the trees or on the forest floor. Their flexible ankles can rotate 180 degrees. This gives them the ability to descend trees headfirst if they so desire.
Their fur changes in color from one season to the other. Their coat is dark brown in winter, while their coat lightens in summer.
Male fishers have a light coloration on their face, head, and shoulders. The fur on males is coarser than on females, but both are darkest on the tail and legs. They have two small white patches of fur in their frontal armpit areas. Some individual fishers have a white chest patch.
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Fisher Cat Behavior and Diet
Solitary Nature and Territorial Marking
Fisher cats are solitary animals except during breeding season. They establish and defend their territories. These can range from 3 to 8 square miles for females. Male territories range from 6 to 15 square miles. This depends on location and food availability. To mark their domains, they use various scent-marking techniques. These include rubbing, rolling, urinating, and defecating on scent posts. These territorial markings help establish boundaries. This reduces the likelihood of territorial disputes. Scent posts are usually an elevated object such as a rock or a stump.
Nocturnal Habits in Wooded Areas
Fishers are primarily nocturnal animals. Their dark fur makes them well-adapted to moving under the cover of night. This behavior helps them avoid daytime predators. It also allows them to exploit the darkness to their advantage when hunting. Their ability to navigate wooded areas during the night makes them efficient predators.
Varied Diet, Including Snowshoe Hares and Porcupines
Fisher cats are generalists with a diverse diet. Contrary to their name, they don’t generally seek out fish as prey. The origin of the name fisher comes from the word fitch. Fitch is the word for a European polecat, which fishers resemble.
The snowshoe hare is one of the fisher’s primary menu items. They also feed on small mammals like mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks. For their size, fisher cats are fierce, tough predators. They are one of the foremost predators of Canada Lynx, which are up to twice their size.
Fishers are known for their unique ability to hunt porcupines successfully. They use a cunning strategy of circling their prey and biting the unquilled face and head. This persistence wears down the porcupine. The fisher eventually delivers a killing bite through the skull. At this point, the fisher flips the porcupine over to feast on the unquilled belly. A single porcupine kill can sustain a fisher for up to a month.
Fishers will also scavenge carrions and occasionally consume fruits and nuts. On a rare occasion, a fisher may venture into a residential area. House cats or small dogs are not their preferred food sources. But, on rare occasions, these pets have met their end due to a fisher attack.
Fisher Cat Reproduction
In Connecticut, mating season for fisher cats occurs in March and April.
Both male and female fishers have plantar glands on the bottoms of the main pad of their hind paws. During the breeding season, these glands become enlarged. They are likely used to give off scent trails, allowing fishers to find prospective mates.
Fisher Cat Life Cycle
Like most members of the weasel family, fishers have delayed embryo implantation. After fertilization, fisher embryos do not implant in the uterine wall for 10 to 11 months.
This unique adaptation allows fishers to strategically time the birth of their young. By synchronizing the implantation with optimal environmental conditions. This enhances the chances of their offspring’s survival.
The active pregnancy starts in mid-February of the next year. After approximately 50 days of gestation, the female gives birth to a litter of one to four kits.
About 7–10 days after giving birth, the female enters estrus, initiating the start of a new breeding cycle.
Expectant mother fishers usually den in hollow trees. Their kits are born blind and helpless. The kits start to crawl after three weeks. Their eyes are not open until they are seven weeks old. They begin climbing after eight weeks. Their diet consists of only their mother’s milk for the first eight to ten weeks. After this, they gradually transition to a solid diet. When the kits are five months old, the mother starts to encourage them to be independent. They establish their own range when they are about a year old.
The Fisher Scream: Fact and Fiction
Fishers are noted for the sounds they make. These are sometimes mistaken for a small child screaming or crying out for help.
The consensus among scientists, though, is that the fisher cat scream is an urban legend. Contrary to popular belief, fisher cats are not particularly vocal creatures. In reality, this vocalization is more accurately associated with the red fox.
Coexisting With Fisher Cats
Protecting Small Pets and Children
Fisher cats may pose a perceived threat to small pets and children. To ensure safe coexistence, it’s advisable to use preventive measures. Keep small dogs and house cats indoors in the evening in areas with fisher cat populations. Supervise children as they play outdoors and educate them about local wildlife.
Fisher Cats in Residential Areas
Fisher cats have adapted to diverse environments, including wooded residential areas. As their natural habitats intersect with human spaces, occasional sightings may occur. Understanding their behavior and respecting their territorial nature is key to cohabiting peacefully. Fisher cats are vital in controlling pest populations, contributing to a healthier ecosystem. In residential areas, secure trash bins and avoid leaving pet food outside at night.
Fisher Trapping in Connecticut
In 2023, Connecticut’s fisher trapping season is November 20th through December 31st. There is a two-animal bag limit. Also, trappers must turn all fisher carcasses into the CDEEP for analysis. Click here for complete information.
Connecticut’s fisher cat population was once eliminated from the state. They now thrive throughout the state. This highlights the resilience of native wildlife and the success of conservation efforts.
Connecticut’s DEEP successfully brought the fisher cat from extirpation. This demonstrates the positive impact of strategic conservation planning. Continued monitoring attests to the dedication of those preserving the natural balance.