The fisher, also known as the pekan, or misleadingly called a fisher cat, is a forest-dwelling mustelid native to North America. Both “fisher” and “fisher cat” are misnomers, given they do not catch fish and have no relation to cats.(1) The latter name can also lead some people to confuse the fisher with the fishing cat.
The origin of the name fisher is not known for certain, but it is likely related to the word “fitch”, referring to the more familiar European polecat or pelt thereof. The name derives from the colonial Dutch equivalent “fisse” or “visse”. Early Dutch settlers may have associated the fisher’s appearance with the dark phase of the European polecat.(2) The “cat” half of their common name is probably a superficial comparison to felines.
The fisher was previously placed with the martens in the genus Martes, until DNA analyses suggested the fisher was distinct enough to be place in its own genus, Pekania.(3)
The fisher’s dorsal surface ranges from medium to dark brown—changing with the season and being slightly different between sexes, with males having coarser fur than females. In early winter, the fisher’s coat is dense, glossy, and dark brown to black. From the face to the shoulders, fur can be hoary-gold or silver due to tricolored guard hairs. The underside is almost completely brown, save for a cream-coloured chest patch varying in size and shape. During summer the fisher’s dorsal surface tends to be lighter.(2)
Fishers tend to be found in coniferous forests, as well as mixed and deciduous forests. They prefer habitats with high canopy closure, as well as habitats with many hollow trees for dens. Spruce, fir, white cedar, as well as some hardwoods are usually found in their habitat.(4) Fishers are more likely to be found in old-growth forests, since trees in heavily logged areas with extensive second growth are not large enough to suit the denning requirements of female fishers. They prefer areas with many hollow trees and continuous overhead cover, with greater than 80% coverage—avoiding areas with less than 50% coverage.(5)
Fishers are most active at dawn and night. They are believed to be solitary animals that only associate when mating. During all times of the year, fishers use “resting sites” such as logs, hollow trees, stumps, holes in the ground, brush piles, and nests of branches. Ground burrows tend to be used during winter, and tree nests are used all year, but primarily in the spring and autumn. Fishers use snow dens during winter, which are burrows under the snow with long and narrow tunnels leading to them.(4)
They do not habitually scream
There are several videos on YouTube perpetuating the widespread belief that the fisher screams like a banshee in the night. Apart from the questionable fact that we never actually see the animal in these videos, the fisher is a mostly silent mustelid and rarely gives its location. These sounds are more likely made by the red fox.(6)
Female fishers are sexually mature after one year of age, with breeding season lasting from late March to early April. After fertilization, blastocyst implantation is then delayed for ten months until mid-February of the following year. After gestating for about 36 days, the female gives birth of one to four kits.(7) Females then enter estrus seven to ten days later before the breeding cycle resumes.(8)
The kits are born blind and helpless, but begin to crawl after three weeks. They open their eyes about seven weeks later,(9) and start to climb after eight weeks. They will depend on their mother’s milk for the first eight to ten weeks of their lives, before being introduced to solid foods. After five months the mother will lead them out on their own, and after a year the juveniles will have established their own range.(8)
Despite their name, fishers seldom hunt fish. They mainly feed on small mammals, birds, insects, nuts, berries and carrion.(4) In some areas, fishers will occasionally raid chicken coops. Perhaps the most well known trait of the fisher is that they are one of few predators to hunt porcupines. Observational studies show that fishers make repeated biting attacks on the face of a porcupine and kill it after about 25–30 minutes.(5) This is in contrast to the sensationalistic misconception found in popular literature, where the fisher is said to flip a porcupine onto its back and “scoop out its belly like a ripe melon”.(10)
Although adult fishers are generally safe from predation, young fishers will occasionally fall prey to hawks, red foxes, lynx, and bobcats.(11)
Since the 18th century, fishers have been popular with trappers due to the value of their fur. During the early 20th century, fishers were nearly exterminated due to a combination of overtrapping and changes to their habitat, especially in the northeastern United States. It was not until 1934 when the fisher started to receive some form of protection. A few years of closed seasons helped the fisher make a gradual recovery of their former range, but once their numbers had improved, trapping resumed in the United States in the mid 1960s. Their numbers once again declined in the late 1970s, leading to a few more years of closed seasons. Trapping of fishers again resumed in 1979, but with restricted bag limits. Since then their numbers have steadily increased.(3)(12)
Secondary exposure to pesticides
In 2012, a study conducted by the Integral Ecology Research Center, UC Davis, U.S. Forest Service, and the Hoopa tribe showed that isolated populations of the fisher in California (known as the Pacific fisher) are exposed to and killed by anticoagulant rodenticides associated with illegal marijuana cultivation.(13) Their study revealed that 79% of fishers tested in California were exposed to an average of 1.61 different anticoagulant rodenticides, with four fishers having died due to these toxicants. A follow-up study in 2015 determined that the fisher’s exposure and mortality from these toxicants increased to 85%, with a now exposed average of 1.73 different anticoagulant rodenticides, resulting in 9 more deaths.(14)
In 2017, Days Edge Productions released Forgotten but not Gone: The Pacific Fisher to bring attention to the Pacific fisher’s struggles, and the controversial 2016 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to not list the species under the Endangered Species Act.
Despite their declining numbers, the Pacific fisher has yet to receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. On the 14th of May 2020, the United States presidential administration denied Endangered Species Act protections to the Pacific fisher from Northern California to the Canadian border. They were however, granted endangered status in the southern Sierra Nevada.(15)
Claims of frequent attacks on domestic cats and humans
There are many far-fetched stories, assumptions, and speculations out there about the fisher that rarely seem to be backed by proper evidence.
One common accusation is that the fisher frequently preys on domestic cats.(16)(17) Contrary to this belief, cats are not on the fisher’s main menu, and despite what some locals have claimed to have personally seen or caught, casual field observations do not illustrate what is happening on a broader scale.
A 1979-1980 study by the Fish and Game examined the stomach contents of fishers trapped in the U.S. state of New Hampshire, and discovered that cat hairs were found in only 1 of over 1,000 stomachs.(18) In 2011, an informal unfinished study in upstate New York found no cat remains in 24 scat or stomach samples, and an earlier published study found no trace of cat in 226 Massachusetts samples.(19) In 2017, a study in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania revealed similar results to the New Hampshire study.(20) Despite these data, the fisher continues to be blamed for missing cats. Wildlife biologist Eric Orff summarised the issue, writing:
“Do they eat cats? Sure, as do foxes, coyotes, owls and – more likely – a local SUV. It is the nature of a house cat injured on a highway to seek a hiding place to die, but you can bet a ‘fisher cat’ will be blamed for its disappearance.”(21)
These studies suggest that the claim that the fisher frequently preys on domestic cats is exaggerated—a combination of the fisher being the scapegoat for other, more likely explanations, and some claims probably being based on mere speculation (e.g., leaping to the conclusion that missing cats were taken by a fisher without witnessing them doing so, or assuming the prey one saw them carry off was a cat). Further, given that few people have seen or taken the time to objectively learn about the elusive fisher prior to an incident, and that mustelids are constantly confused for other animals, cases of mistaken identity cannot be ruled out. Even if every study did find cat remains in the stomach and scat samples of fishers, without further examination, we could not discount the possibility that some of the cats were already dead (e.g., roadkill) before they were consumed.
Unless a fisher is threatened, cornered, or suffering from rabies, attacks on humans are extremely rare. There have been a few isolated claims of attacks on humans.(22)(23) However, similar to attacks on domestic cats, some of these allegations may or may not be true, since some incidents may not have been thoroughly investigated to confirm the attacker was a fisher.
Fishers are simply trying to find food and survive, though they may react aggressively to a perceived threat when startled. So to lower the chances of fisher attacks, it is recommended to restrict access to food waste, pets, pet foods, and domestic fowl.(4)
They are not the main threat to wild turkey populations
Some believe the fisher is the main cause for the decline of wild turkey populations in the United States. This is yet another unsubstantiated belief about the fisher that make them the target of misdirected anger. While it is certainly possible for fishers to prey on turkeys, the act is hardly common enough to be a significant threat to their numbers.(24) A recent study in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania revealed that out of 91 fisher carcasses from 2002–2014 that had their stomach contents examined, only three had any trace of bird species in their stomachs, and not a single one was a turkey.(20)
According to an article on the National Wild Turkey Federation’s website, among other factors, it is likely production (not predation) that drives turkey populations. High population densities prevent many hens from finding quality nesting, and may decrease the chances of a successful hatch or the ability to raise a brood. The belief is that a quality habitat that provides both adequate space and shelter for turkeys is more important than the number of predators.(25) Blaming an elusive animal like the fisher may be the easy thing for us to do, but the long-term solution to increasing turkey numbers may ultimately depend on man’s activities, as well as good habitat management.(26)
Body length: 90–120 cm / 35–47 in (males), 75–95 cm / 30–37 in (females)
Tail length: 37–41 cm / 14.5–16 in (males), 31–36 cm / 12–14 in (females)
Weight: 3.5–6.0 kg / 8–13 lb (males), 2.0–2.5 kg / 4–6 lb (females)
Lifespan: Up to 7 years (wild), up to 10 years (captivity)
Range: Northern forests of North America.
Conservation status: Least concern
- Mass Audubon. “About Fishers”. Accessed October 21, 2019.
- Powell, R.A. (May 8, 1981). “Martes pennanti“ (PDF). Mammalian Species. The American Society of Mammalogists (156): 1–6. doi:10.2307/3504050. JSTOR 3504050. pp. 4–6. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 30, 2005. Accessed October 21, 2011.
- Koepfli, Klaus-Peter; Deere, Kerry A; Slater, Graham J; Begg, Colleen; Begg, Keith; Grassman, Lon; Lucherini, Mauro; Veron, Geraldine; Wayne, Robert K (February 14, 2008). “Multigene phylogeny of the Mustelidae: Resolving relationships, tempo and biogeographic history of a mammalian adaptive radiation”. BMC Biology. 6 (10): 10. doi:10.1186/1741-7007-6-10. PMC 2276185. PMID 18275614.
- Rhines, C. 2003. “Martes pennanti“ (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 22, 2021.
- Powell, Roger A. (November 1993). “The Fisher: Life History, Ecology, and Behavior”. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-2266-5.
- Martin, Chris. New Hampshire Public Radio. March 13, 2015. “Something Wild: The Maligned Fisher”. Accessed December 25, 2020.
- Burt, William Henry. A field guide to the mammals: North America north of Mexico. Vol. 5. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1976, p. 55.
- Feldhamer, George A.; Thompson, Bruce C.; Chapman, Joseph A. (2003). “Wild mammals of North America: biology, management, and conservation“. pp. 635–649. ISBN 978-0-8018-7416-1. Accessed September 12, 2020.
- Pattie, Donald L.; Fisher, Chris C. (1999). Mammals of Alberta. Edmonton: Lone Pine Pub. p. 82.
- Doyle, Brian. High Country News. 6 March, 2006. “Fishering”. Accessed 28 June, 2021.
- Kurta, A. 1995. “Mammals of the Great Lakes Region”. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Novak, Milan. “Furbearer harvests in North America, 1600-1984”. Ministry of Natural Resources, 1987.
- Gabriel, Mourad W., et al. “Anticoagulant rodenticides on our public and community lands: spatial distribution of exposure and poisoning of a rare forest carnivore.“ PloS one 7.7 (2012): e40163.
- Gabriel, Mourad W., et al. “Patterns of natural and human-caused mortality factors of a rare forest carnivore, the fisher (Pekania pennanti) in California.” PLoS One 10.11 (2015): e0140640.
- The Center for Biological Diversity. May 14, 2020. “Trump Administration Denies Endangered Species Protection for Pacific Fisher Across Most of Species’ Range”. Accessed June 08, 2020.
- San Diego Union-Tribune. June 12, 2008. “Weasel-like fishers rebound; backyard pets become prey”. Archived from the original on October 9, 2011. Accessed June 08, 2020.
- O’Brian, Brian. Boston Globe. August 25, 2005. “On the wild side: Once nearly extinct, weasel-like fishers thrive in the suburbs, where their ravenous feeding habits threaten family pets”. Accessed June 08, 2020.
- Orff, Eric B. New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife. “The Fisher: New Hampshire’s Rodney Dangerfield”. Accessed June 08, 2020.
- Kays, Roland. The New York Times. 6 April, 2011. “Do Fishers Really Eat Cats?”. Archived from the original on April 9, 2011. Accessed 17 July, 2021.
- McNeil, Darin J., et al. “Diets of fishers (Pekania pennanti) and evidence of intraspecific consumption in Pennsylvania”. The American Midland Naturalist 177.2 (2017): 200-210. p. 204.
- Orff, Eric B. New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife. “New Hampshire Weasels”. Accessed June 08, 2020.
- WCVB News. July 1, 2014. “Family says boy, 12, attacked by fisher cat”. Accessed June 08, 2020.
- FOXProvidence.com. 23 June, 2009. “Fisher Cat Attacks Child at Bus Stop”. Archived from the original on March 6, 2011. Retrieved July 17, 2021.
- Sorensen, Steve. Jamestown Gazette. June 18, 2018. “Fishers—No Threat to Our Turkey Population“. Accessed March 16, 2021.
- Perrotte, Ken. National Wild Turkey Federation. “4 Facts about Declining Turkey Populations“. Accessed March 16, 2021.
- Kennamer, James E. National Wild Turkey Federation. “Wild Turkeys and Predators: What’s the Real Problem?“. Accessed March 16, 2021.