Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Fisher (Martes pennanti)

Seeing my hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts, USA as more than just my youthful stomping ground has been difficult.  I grew up in this area; every street and landmark has some connotation to me that no visitor would see.  It is funny that while traveling I desperately seek that "local" feeling to truly understand a place, while at home I wish to discard the "local" feeling and look at my surroundings with unbiased eyes!  But I'm finding that these "local" connotations skew my knowledge of what Grafton, even Massachusetts, has to offer.  Today I stepped outside my "local" knowledge by exploring one of the Grafton Land Trust's properties, the Hassanamesit Woods.  Despite the fact that the entrance to this excellent conservation land is only two miles from my front door, I had never visited in my life!  Here was a new location to view Massachusetts wilderness objectively.  Despite the fact that it's November, and most of the leaves (and even branches!) of the trees have fallen due to an early snowstorm, it was still a beautiful afternoon walk.  Meandering around from 2-4 PM, the last thing I expected to see was a giant, black-furred mammalian predator on the prowl!  But that's what appeared in front of me - perhaps a hundred feet away down a long stretch of trail among the white pine forest, what I at first thought was a black dog turned and peered back at me - probably because I shouted "WHOA, WHAT IS THAT?!"

The missing link!  ...Or just a startled fisher.
I know, I know - my picture looks as legitimate as the photographs of the Loch Ness Monster.  But a friend put me on the right path with her guess - a fisher!  These amazing creatures, which live for a maximum of 7-10 years in the wild, are one of the largest representatives of the Mustelid family (the taxonomic order containing skunks, weasels, otters, ferrets, etc.).  They can get to three feet long and weigh up to 12 pounds.  They are endemic to North America, and more common in the northern part of their range (Canada).  They actually were pushed to local extinction in the late 1800's to early 1900's due to excessive hunting (for their fur) and intensive logging activity that destroyed the dense pine forest habitat they need to survive.  Thanks to a reduction in logging and a moratorium on hunting in the 1930's, the fisher population began to recover and expand their range.  Now fishers are known throughout Massachusetts, and even a bit further south into Connecticut.  Hunting activities resumed in the 1950's, though heavily regulated.  In fact, this is the middle of the Massachusetts fisher season - trappers can catch them (with licenses) from November 1st to November 22nd!  (Don't worry, they're not endangered.)

Young fisher kits!
Fishers are more famously known for their terrifying but fascinating screams, which sound like a person being attacked!  If you're near a large, heavily-wooded pine forest, you might hear one calling for a mate on a cool April evening.  Although fisher copulation (which can last for 7 hours, how about that) results in fertilized embryos in April, the female fisher doesn't actually implant the embryos in her uterus until the following February - 10 months later!  (This fact confounded fur farmers that thought they could grow this species just like other furbearing mammals - the impatient farmers couldn't figure out why the females didn't seem to get pregnant!)  After a gestation period of 50 days, the female finds a nice hole in a tree to give birth and raise her 1-4 "kits."  After about 5 months, she kicks them out and the young fishers must begin their solitary lives.

"Pekan" is an indigenous name; don't try to make pie with one.
Another awesome fisher fact - they are the prime enemy of porcupines!  Apparently other predatory mammals in the region are too "tall" to attack a porcupine - getting only a mouthful of quills!  But fishers are low enough to the ground to coordinate an attack to the face of the porcupine.  And what an attack!  It may take half an hour for a fisher to kill a porcupine this way - circling the porcupine and repeatedly biting at the face!  Afterwards, they dodge the quill problem by flipping the dead porcupine over and dining on the soft underbelly.  These warm-blooded carnivores are active all year round - no hibernation - and need to eat the equivalent of 1-2 squirrels per day to keep their energy up!  (They also eat snowshoe hares, mice, shrews, and carrion of larger animals).

Outside the mating season, fishers are solitary creatures that establish habitats of about eight square miles, with little overlap for individuals of the same sex.  This means that in the whole Hassanamesit Woods area of Grafton, you might only see a single male and a single female!  See if your local New England pine forest has fishers around.  They spend most of their time on the ground (NOT in trees) and are most active during the "crepuscular" hours - sunrise and sunset.  To learn more cool facts about fishers, check out the "Mammalian Species" journal article that I got most of my information from and an info pamphlet on fishers from the Massachusetts government.  Of course, Google and YouTube have great stuff too!

What a great day in the woods.  Maybe I'll go again soon, wait with coffee and an MP3 player, and try to get better photos.  The experience just goes to show how close new experiences are to your own home!

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