Your new neighbors, the fishers

captured fisher

Bernard's new around here.

That furry guy in the picture above is a fisher. His name is Bernard. He was caught by some scientists in the Albany Pine Bush recently as part of research into why he and his fisher friends have decided to take up residence in suburban parts of this area (they've been spotted around Albany and Saratoga counties).

What, you've never heard of fishers? Very few people have. The animals were extraordinarily rare in this area as recently as the 1990s.

Intrigued by our new neighbors, we called up Roland Kays this week. He's the curator of mammals at the New York State Museum and he's leading the research project that captured Bernard.

We talked with Roland about fisher mysteries, coked up wolverines, cat murders, squirrel horror movies and "the landscape of fear."

So, what are you doing with fishers in the Pine Bush?

We're catching them, giving them GPS collars and then letting them go. And what we want to do is look at their movement patterns see how it is they're navigating and choosing where to go in a suburbanized landscape.

We'll also be doing this with animals in a more wilderness setting. And the underlying question is: what are the adaptations that animals make to human dominated landscapes.

Why the interest in fishers specifically?

Because they're new arrivals on the suburban landscape. They have just recently entered the area in the last 10 years.

Why is that?

(laughs) Well, that's what we're trying to find out. Because they can, I guess.

But why they can is an interesting question. They were, historically, at much lower population levels throughout the state in the mid-1900s and even into the 1970s. And then in the late 80s and early 90s their population started increasing across the state and across the region in the Eastern United States. As part of that, I think they filled up all the wilderness habitat and started pushing into these other habitats, these woods in people's backyards.

Coyotes have kind of done the same thing. And people know about the coyotes, but no one seems to know about the fishers in their backyard.

Right, I don't think most people even know such an animal exists.

No, they don't. And, you know, there's a couple reasons for that. One is that even if you were a woodsman growing up in the 80s or 70s or even most of the 90s, you probably never would have come across one because they were just so rare. They were only a wilderness animal in the Adirondacks.

And then, for reasons we don't necessarily know -- partially because fur prices dropped, but other reasons have probably also come into play -- they've just spread all over the place and they're really abundant.

Last year in the TU, there was a story about a woman being attacked by a fisher in Glenville. And that account kind of made the fisher sound like some kind of coked up wolverine. Are these something we should be afraid of?

I wouldn't say they're coked up wolverines, but they are like... wolverines (laughs). A coked up wolverine would be really scary...

Well, first of all, that animal had rabies. And, you know, a pussy cat that gets rabies is going to be like a coked up wolverine.

And that was a very rare case. The state pathologist can't remember ever seeing another fisher with rabies. That's a side effect of fishers being abundant and living in areas that also have a lot of raccoons.

So it's not like these things are naturally aggressive to humans.

Correct. I have not heard of them ever attacking, other than that one. Which, by the way, that fisher was wearing a radio collar with my name on it when it attacked that lady.

Oh, that must have made you very proud!

(light, sarcastic laugh) Yeah. It was Roger the fisher. A few years ago we had radio collared a few fishers. We caught one in the Pine Bush and he took off and went down around Thacher Park. And the battery ran out after about a year and we had no way of following him and that was the end of it as far as we were concerned.

After that, it turns out he crossed he Mohawk River, a couple highways, went north of Schenectady, ran into a raccoon, got rabies and bit a lady on the foot.

fisher weighingSo how does one go about catching a fisher?

Basic cage live trap with some chicken and some stinky scent liver.

[Here's some video of a fisher captured in the Pine Bush.]

Fishers are powerless to resist.

Yeah, they're curious animals and they go in and trigger the trap. And we go check them, tranquilize them, pull them out, give 'em a radio collar, take a couple measurements, put them back in and let them wake up. [On the right is a picture of a tranquilized fisher being weighed.]

So, in another hour, my students are going to go let the newest fisher out. [this was Thursday afternoon]

And that normally goes OK, nobody loses a hand or anything like that?

Yeah, nobody loses a hand, no. Yeah, these are in the weasel famiily and weasels generally have attitudes that are pretty ferocious -- they're predators of mice and rabbits.

These guys are bigger. We caught a big guy the other day. We named him Bernard. He was 6.2 kilos (13.6 lbs).

So they're like a really big cat.

Yeah. Only no fat.

Just all muscle.

Yeah.

And I'm guessing claws.

Yeah. They have big feet.

So they're called fishers...

Yeah, that's a bad name. They don't do any fishing.They eat a lot of things.

There was a little kerfluffle recently. This guy up in Wilton got upset because his cat got killed by a predator. And he had seen a fisher a few days before that so he thought a fisher did it. And he made a bit of stink about fishers, "We gotta kill these fishers, they're eating all our cats."

It may have been a fisher. It was probably a coyote. Coyotes definitely eat cats. I've never seen hard evidence that fishers eat cats. We looked at the diets of about 20 fishers around Saratoga and Albany counties and we found a lot of different things -- they eat rabbits and squirrels and birds and mice and fruit. We didn't find any cats, but that doesn't mean they don't do it.

It sounds like, potentially, the arrival of these fishers isn't necessarily a bad thing if they're going to be predators for a lot of these animals that don't have checks on them already.

Yeah, absolutely. The one I'm most interested in is the gray squirrel. Here's a suburban creature that's has been living sort of high on the hog for the past 20 years.

Let me tell you, we have some *fat* squirrels around here.

Yeah, lots of overweight squirrels with no fear. Their main predators have been dogs and cats. And they can just run up a tree and look at the dogs and cats. But a fisher climbs trees very well.

In the biologists' lingo, there's a fun term called the "landscape of fear" -- where is an animal safe and where should it be afraid. And the squirrel's landscape of fear just changed in a drastic way with the arrival of fishers. Suddenly they're not safe in trees anymore.

That sounds like the trailer for some squirrel horror movie.

Doesn't it? (laughs)

So, if fisher is a bad name for these things, what would you call them?

Mini-wolverines? I don't know. (laughs) They're a type of marten. They're a really big marten. Mega-marten?
________

Roland and his team have been trapping and tagging fishers in the Pine Bush since 2002. But he says they've only recently focused on the animals. The current study is using collars with tiny GPS tags to track the fishers around Albany. The team is working to compile the GPS data on a map to show where the fishers have been hanging out.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

photo: Roland Kays

Comments

I used to live not too far from the Pine Bush. I so would've rather had one of these little guys-- even a coked-up one-- as my neighbor rather than some of the people who have lived next door.

Swear to God this is the most interesting thing I have read all week. Thank you All Over Albany.

Photos of the fishers but no good ones of Dr. Kays? Unfair! He's one of those hot-nerd scientists!

these animals are absolutely vicious. a wolverine is a good comparison. two years ago one came INTO our house/garage and killed our family's cat. it would not let up, despite receiving a beating from my father. if i see one i will run it over with my car. or shoot it.

Nice - I saw a fisher in my suburban Colonie backyard just last week. He was real agile and quick. Up a tree and over a fence in no time.

I hunt in Rensselaer County and have seen these guys in the woods for years.

1. Bernard is super-cute, right? The picture kind of makes me want to give him a hug (while he's still under sedation.)

2. "Mega-marten," sounds like a Norwegian grocery store.

They look like giant ferrets (not surprising because they would be cousins). I would loveto see one in the wild. I find the ways animals adapt to live along side humans fasinating.

i think they should drop some off in downtown Albany, mostly due to the ghetto squirrel population that was mentioned, i live on the bottom of Clinton Ave with 2 110lb dogs...and the squirrels laugh and taunt my dogs, sometimes i think the squirrels are throwing gang signs and i sware i saw one smoking cigarettes....anyhoo, id like a fisher or 4 down in my neighborhood to knock these gangsta squirrels back a bit, and whats up with all the black birds down here? i feel like im in a horror move everyday i walk home from work

@vonguinness: I've seen them taunting cats too in Center Square:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/altuwa/214469313/

I used to own land in the southern Adirondacks 1990's + - . I met a lady who saw a fisher that had captured a baby fawn. She stopped to help the fawn and was attacked by the fisher. She got away, the fawn did not. I will not take them for granted.

Hit one with my car — by accident, KimD — about a year ago near GE R&D. Was huge, I thought it was some kind of a mutant weasel from behind Knolls Atomic over there. Had to replace the front bumper.

Kim D., do you think it's normal behavior for this animal?

Watch out, it might be rabid...

I've been in KimD's car. If you are wearing fur, she will run over you too :)

I just saw a fisher two nights ago here in Troy while I was out walking the dog. I live 3 blocks from the Hudson River in the Washington Park area. It ran up Adams Street and huddled under a car. It loped along like a long legged cat. Do they travel along the river banks?

I saw one on the night of April 30th in the Bloomingroove Area in North Greenbush. Are folks regularly seeing them in this area?

I just saw one last night in my yard about a mile from Crossgates. It seemed to be chasing my cat. The cat was retreating, but did not appear to fear the fisher the way it would a dog. I opened the door to call the cat in and the fisher stopped its pursuit, and walked off into the woods with its back arched slightly. My husband saw it on the front proch about a week ago as it had torn into a garbage bag. Unfortunately, we now think our garbage invader has been the fisher and that this has gone on for several weeks. Now the trash cans are in the basement. I hope it doesn't come back for the cat. Still a very amazing animal.

I saw one of these in the Pine Hills Neighborhood of Albany, NY earlier this year (February 2009). At first I thought I was hallucinating because I had never seen an animal like this and it contrasted with the white snow pretty severely. It was low to the ground and just appeared to gracefully leap over and around snow banks. I was shocked it was in such a high traffic/urban area -- and did some googling to figure out what it was. My first hits were wolverine/minx/weasel -- but it was way bigger then a minx or weasel and wolverines aren't native to here. Pretty crazy. Only saw it once, but it certainly caught my attention -- seemed to be out of place!

I saw a fisher in Brooklyn Twp., Susquehanna Co., PA in June 2009 about two hundred feet from the kitchen window. Before I could grab my camera it disappeared. It had a frosted coat and was predominately black or very dark brown with a really nice fluffy tail. It was almost dusk. It took some work to figure out what it was, but I did get a very good look at it. I wouldn't mind having a fisher coat.

I just read this article about the Fisher cats. Just recently one was seen killing a squirrel in Vestal Center in Broome County, NY. So these wolverines have migrated quite a bit further south than this article suggests. I am concerned as I have many species of wildlife I feed and 2 ferel cats in our neighborhood. I would not like to witness such carnage in my own back yard. The hawks have taken most of our bunnies, chipmunks, baby squirrels and many birds. Now we have to worry about this kind of predator entering our backyards?

I live in Charlton, NY and there was a fisher in my neighborhood this past weekend. Some neighbors saw it moving in circles for a while and thought it might be rabid. The police came and shot the animal twice. We have not heard if the animal was tested and if so what the results were.

Saw a large fisher in our backyard in Rotterdam today. We live in the older section of town, off of Curry Rd...very urban. Pretty scary! My first though was a huge cat but it was rusty brown. My second was it looked like a bear cub but had a bushy tail as long as the body. Once you see one, you'll know it!

Saw two yesterday in Thatcher Park. One small (perhaps juvenile) one quite large. We were on the Hop Field Trail in the forested section not far from the picnic area. Our dog was MIGHTY interested.

One of my cats disappeared in late Sept. and now, 7 months later, 1 of my stray cats just disappeared. I went into the barn to see if i'd find him there. instead i found the skeleton of a dead oppossum, and the body of a dead skunk, with his throat eaten out and his chest opened up with the flesh from the chest cavity eaten. there's a small opening big enough to let a cat into the barn. so i knew it had to be a small predatory animal that killed those guys. this evening i googled "night predators" for my area and came up with this "fisher cat". i never heard of it before. so i started watching a video of an attack by a fisher cat on 'you-tube' with audio . suddenly 1 of my cats leaped up in the air. he was in a complete panic. he flew through the house, peeing all over, from 1 end of the house to the other with his tail all puffed up. i have never seen him so panic stricken in all the years that he's lived with me. I found him in Vestal NY, Broome County. after this incredible reaction; after this display of panic and fear, i have concluded that both my house cat and stray cat fell victim to this creature. i knew something was outside tonight. none of my cats would stay outdoors as they usually like to do on a clear evening. but i also knew that it wasn't the usual creatures of the night that were out there. they don't even behave like this when black bear come around. i think i have just discovered the cause for my disappearing cats. my cat Apachi has just told me what the problem is. and now, i'm petrified. there's still another stray cat out there. i'm afraid that i'll be losing all of my cats one by one. its really impossible to contain them in the house. i simply don't know what to do.

Aster:

no, it's not impossible to keep your cats inside. don't let them out, problem solved.

I live near Pownal, VT. Saw a big one sitting in the drive along the brush edge... Thought it was a small bear from a distance , sitting up just like my black house cat, a neighbor said they found an animal she had never seem cut open and left down around the corner on the dirt drive, gonna show her a picture today, I have a feeling it's a fisher, I hope someone didn't kill it and just leave it there, she said it looked malicious and felt bad.... As long as they don't bother me or my small dog I have no issue with them, after all we live in they're habitat, right ?... Keep ya posted...have a good day

Saw one today in my backyard. My neighbor then saw its four youngins in his backyard later in the day. We are afraid of it getting aggressive around its young. Calling animal control tomorrow since we both have young kids

I have them in my back woods, 2 of them looked 4 ft from head to tail end chasing each other around up and down tree stumps. I live in east concond, new York. April of 2015 was the first time we spotted them. Now there are four in july.

I just saw one in Brooklyn, NY on Saturday night. I didn't know what it was at all until I did research on the internet. Definitely looked like a fisher, which would also explain why haven't seen any squirrels around these last couple of months. I thought that was strange.

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