There is perhaps no animal that has as much mystique in northern New England as the Fisher. And wrapped up in its mysterious natural history are plenty of tales. Take the blood-curdling scream of the fisher at night. Actually, they are a nearly silent predator, most of those night noises are fox or owls. Or how about the colloquial name: fisher-cat, when they are neither a cat nor do they eat fish. European settlers named them for their superficial resemblance to the European polecat, also referred to as fichet or fitche.
So I wasn’t surprised to learn something new about Fishers when my friend Deb Williams at the Aloha Foundation’s Ohana Family Camp on Lake Fairlee, Vermont contacted me about a strange Fisher finding. She found the desiccated body of a Fisher under a cabin they were rebuilding. But what was amazing about this poor fellow were the quills. Its face and body was full of Porcupine quills. I’d always heard Fishers were specialists at eating Porcupines, but here was one that clearly died after a massive misstep.
I thought Fishers were experts at eating Porcupines, so I turned to my colleague Steve Faccio, a biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies who studied Fishers during their reintroduction to Connecticut years ago. “This drives home a common misconception about the fisher-porcupine relationship,” says Steve. “Fishers are not porky ‘specialists’, but will take them on occasion, usually when they’ve been unsuccessful at killing other prey.
It turns out that although mostly carnivorous, Fishers will generally eat whatever comes along or is available. They can travel 60 miles on some hunting forays. Their main prey include carrion of all sorts, snowshoe hare, mice, voles, shrews, squirrels, birds, amphibians, insects, and even fruits and nuts. I once tracked a Fisher in deep snow with Steve for miles only to find in the end that it settled for dinning on frozen apples off an old tree. One summer I even found Fisher scat filled with Hermit Thrush egg shells.
But when they have to, Fishers do indeed feed on Porcupines, which are covered in dangerous quills. Well, not totally covered. If you ever come across a porky you will notice that it always tries to expose its hind end and tail while hiding its face. Move to the front of it and it will turn around to show you the business end, raising its quills and swinging its armed tail back and forth. But its face has a gap in the armor and is exploited by Fishers. They attack Porcupines with swift and repeated bites to the quill-free face and head. Once it has killed it, the Fisher turns it over and devours it from the stomach side where there are also no quills.
“Attacking one is a gamble that takes a lot of energy, but has a big payoff if they are successful, although the risk is high and potentially fatal,” notes Steve. And Deb’s find gives us proof positive of that.
Photograph courtesy of Deb Williams.