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Gaining a Better Understanding of Fishers

Those of us who are heavily involved in the outdoors usually have a great interest in wildlife in general and not just the various species we pursue. I know I’m always trying to gain a better understanding of all wildlife and I’m especially interested in the science of what makes various creatures behave the way they do. Many hunters especially will often form opinions of some wildlife that is not based on science or solid research resulting in misconceptions of how some wildlife species interact with the environment and other wildlife. A typical example would be the many controversial opinions of how we manage deer here in Pennsylvania. There’s no shortage of opinions on what’s happened to our once abundant pheasant population either. In the meantime, we are trying to gain a better understanding of a relative newcomer to Pennsylvania — the fisher.

Actually, the fisher is not really new to our state, but it was once a common occupant of our vast wooded landscape before it apparently disappeared in the early 1900s. From 1994 to 1998, 190 fishers that were trapped in New Hampshire and New York were released into northern Pennsylvania. Needless to say, they have done extremely well and have spread throughout Pennsylvania. Sightings are becoming much more common albeit some folks aren’t sure what they are actually seeing. A fisher looks like a giant mink with dark fur; it is, in fact, the second largest member of the weasel family.

Previously it was believed that fishers were drawn to large, unbroken forests with an abundance of large coniferous trees but with their reintroduction here in Pennsylvania that opinion is going by the wayside. Pennsylvania fishers have in fact proven to be highly adaptable often-utilizing small, fragmented deciduous woodlots. Researchers have captured, and radio-collared 23 fishers in our state and we are finding that fishers actually utilize deciduous forests as resting areas more than previously believed. Trees with broken tops or cavities including black cherry, American beech, and sugar maple are all heavily used as well as ground structures like rock piles and burrows. Research has also found that fishers are more tolerant of highways and people than previously believed. They frequently crossroads; the last fisher I saw was lying dead on a highway near the Pocono’s.

A lot of what drives fishers to move about or utilize these different habitats is no doubt related to the need for food. Studies show that fishers are not the specialist predators they were once believed to be. They will eat almost anything, but rodents and porcupines appear to make up the greater portion of their diet. What fishers eat in fact appears to be another misunderstood idea that some hunters have — at least that’s what some recent research shows. Because of the fishers great climbing ability, some hunters think they may be killing large numbers of roosting turkeys, but research shows otherwise. First, an adult turkey would be a formidable opponent even for a fisher; that’s not to say it doesn’t happen but apparently not very often.

Between 2002 and 2014 Indiana University of Pennsylvania studied the stomach contents of 91 fishers either killed by vehicles or lawfully trapped. Voles were the most commonly found stomach content along with squirrels, mice, rabbits, raccoons, woodchucks, shrews, bird eggs, scavenged deer meat and a number of other critters like frogs and bats. Even fruits and plants along with other fisher remains were found in the stomach contents. No turkey remains were found, but there were remains of a pheasant, a black-capped chickadee, and a downy woodpecker.

Research is clearly showing that fishers are more adaptable than we previously realized and we are learning more about their feeding habits, and it doesn’t appear that they are a threat to our turkey population.

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