February 11, 2010
On my morning walk yesterday, I came on some tracks in the snow that immediately got my attention. They were medium dog-sized, but rounder and set too far apart for a coyote or dog. There was also a touch of tail drag between the tracks and it was easy to see that this animal propelled itself by ‘humping’ along. I knew that I was looking at the tracks of a fisher.
The fisher, Martes pennant, is a member of the family Mustelidae, aka the weasel family. This includes minks, ermines, polecats (European), wolverines, badgers, martens and even otters in addition to weasels and ferrets. They all have the same style of body: elongated, with short legs and a medium length tail. And, they have a very distinctive gait, humping along, using their spine as a means of extending their stride and gaining speed. With the exception of perhaps the playful otter, most mustelids are of ferocious disposition, the wolverine being infamous for its foul temper. This fierceness serves them well, in fact. A wolverine can drive a mountain-lion off of a freshly killed deer, convincing the big cat that finding another prey would be preferable to tangling with the specter in front of him with bared fangs and a spine-tingling snarl. Unfortunately for mustelids, most of them have luxurious winter coats and this has made them preferred species for the fur trade. The first mink I ever saw was wound around my mother’s shoulders, three full skins, heads attached, the mouths having been made into clasps that allowed her to join the ends of this macabre ‘scarf’ together.
Here in Maine, fishers are more common than weasels, minks or any other family members, and are commonly referred to as ‘fisher cats’, although they are no relation to felines. I have no idea how they came to be called fisher cats, but they are, and not just in New England. In fact, the reason most Mainers have a palpable dislike, even hatred, of fishers is because wandering house cats often find themselves on the fisher’s menu. Despite the fact that a large fisher tops out at about 12 pounds, no house cat—regardless of size or temperament—is a match for a fisher. Period. Not a contest. So, when cats disappear in this neck of the woods, the fisher immediately comes to mind as the reason.
When you think of a fisher, imagine a mink on steroids, bigger than a Pine marten, and utterly fearless and fierce. I was told by a woodsman that a fisher will chase a squirrel up one tree after another until the squirrel is so exhausted that it falls trying to jump to the next tree. I don’t know if he actually watched a hunt of this nature, but the fact that he was passing on this bit of north woods lore is significant in itself.
So, this morning I came across the tracks of a Snowshoe hare. I call them ‘funny bunnies’, because they seem almost magical in their ability to remain invisible and survive in a forest populated by coyotes, foxes, fishers, bobcats…..and people. They do this, in part, by being evolutionary masters of camouflage, changing colors to match the seasons. I have only ever had eyes on one snowshoe, but I’d bet that I have looked right past dozens. They know how to position themselves and to remain stock still, so seeing one is difficult under most circumstances. And, of course, they multiply rapidly to off-set the predation of all those hungry predators.
Just another day in the Maine woods.