Copyright © 2019 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved
“Don,” my wife said in a half-whisper. “Come quick.” It was an October morning just before sunrise, and I was doing my early morning routine of reviewing and deleting email messages that had accumulated overnight in my inbox. I followed Betty from my office to the darkened dining room where, through the window, we would often watch the birds and red squirrels come to our feeders hanging off the railing above the deck. However, the animal sitting on the railing with its snout pushed into a bird feeder was no bird or squirrel.
Betty and I have lived on a rural acreage west of Edmonton, Alberta, for over 40 years now. We love it here, where we built our home in a mixed-wood forest mostly dominated by poplar trees (balsam and aspen). We have a small clearing where we grow a garden and orchard. Although we keep trees and shrubs cleared around our house and other buildings, we otherwise leave the trees and underbrush undisturbed because we appreciate the wildlife they attract.
As a biologist/naturalist, I enjoy watching wildlife of all kinds. The series of bird feeders attracts a variety of birds throughout the year. Although some of the feeders are “squirrel proof,” providing food for smaller birds, such as chickadees, nuthatches and redpolls, I also have a couple of hopper feeders for larger birds, such as blue jays and grosbeaks, as well as squirrels. As a graduate-student, I studied squirrels and their behavior. So, I appreciate the red squirrels that frequent our hopper feeders. (Red squirrels are amazingly intelligent problem solvers, but that’s a blog for another time.)
At first, Betty thought this particular animal was a cat and was going to shoo it away. But then she saw its face. “More like a weasel,” she said, as I cautiously approached the window. Standing on the deck railing with its front paws hanging off one of the hopper feeders, the animal munched on sunflower seeds. It was larger than a typical house cat, with a long bushy tail and thick dark-brown fur. When I looked at its face, the first species that came to mind was marten, but that wasn’t right either. I have seen several martens (Martes americana) over the years. They are smaller and sleeker than this animal, and I’d never seen a marten here.
Having studied mammals most of my life, I knew what this member of the weasel family (Mustelidae) must be, but found myself denying the reality. If we had not seen marten here, why would we be seeing its rarer cousin, the fisher (Pekania pennanti)?
Fishers are indeed rarely seen. I was lucky enough to see one when I was hunting moose in northwestern Alberta, many years ago. It was up a tree arguing with a coyote on the ground. Both animals ignored me and I moved on, cursing myself for not packing a camera (this was back in the pre-digital-camera/smartphone days). However, I realized I was very lucky to have seen the fisher and the memory is tattooed on my brain.
The common name “fisher” is a bit of a misnomer. Fishers do not normally catch or eat fish. The name evolved apparently from the anglicization of the word fiche, relating in some way to the European pole cat, which the fisher is not.
A very efficient hunter, the fisher hunts the prolific red squirrel, which might have been the reason it came to our location. But it is also an opportunity hunter, taking whatever is available at the time, from mice and frogs to snowshoe hares, the latter being a particular target. As well, it is known for being one of the few predators that will hunt porcupines. It will also eat carrion, berries, and as evidenced at our bird feeders, seeds.
We watched the fisher for several minutes chowing down on our striped sunflower seeds. It was very efficient at shelling the seeds in its mouth without using its paws. Then I remembered to grab my smartphone and take some photos. By the time I returned the animal had moved down the railing to the other hopper feeder and was gnawing away at a cake of suet we’d placed at the end of the feeder for the woodpeckers. After eating a generous chunk, it slipped off the deck and disappeared into the woods. It was at our feeders for about 20 minutes.
I knew I was lucky to get the few pictures I did because I did not expect to see this animal again. But I also knew there was a slim possibility it might return for the easy pickings we provided. So, I set up a trail camera on the deck to record that eventuality. It was a good thing I did.
The next morning, I walked into our darkened kitchen a few minutes before sunup and through the window saw the fisher once again at the north feeder. I grabbed my digital camera and took a host of pictures through the window, using available light so I would not disturb the animal. As before, it spent considerable time eating at that feeder before moving down to the south feeder where it munched on the suet cake for a good period of time and then slinked off the deck and was gone.
On checking the trail cam, I found many pictures of the animal feeding on the north feeder. The south feeder was too far away for the camera to react. Because of the low light, the camera used its infrared flash to gather the photos, so all the images are in black and white. By the time it switched to available light (in color), the fisher was already gone.
We speculated on the possibility that this animal might make our feeders a regular part of its daily routine. But I had my doubts. I knew they had large home ranges, and we would be lucky if it returned at all. Nevertheless, I made sure all the feeders were filled, the decimated suet cake replaced and the trail camera ready.
On the third morning, I camped in the dining room with my camera at the ready, well before sunrise. One thing we’d learned over the years is that the birds show up at our feeders when the pre-dawn light is at a certain intensity and not before. The squirrels, on the other hand, don’t show up until the sun is well above the horizon, which turns out to be a good strategy with regard to this fisher.
I started my vigil before the birds showed up. At the appointed time, the chickadees started darting into the feeder. I waited and waited, watching the birds come into the squirrel-proof feeders, taking their black sunflower seeds and flying up into the trees to crack them open. Then the blue jays appeared at the hopper feeders, taking the larger seeds for their use. Blue jays have an attitude about the feeders and will regularly drive the resident red squirrel crazy, flying from one hopper to the other as the squirrel races back and forth to chase them away.
As the morning got brighter and brighter, I could see that the south feeder was a bit askew. On closer inspection I saw the fresh cake of suet I had placed the previous morning was gone. Those cakes usually last more than a week and they would not be easy for a bird, squirrel or fisher to remove whole.
I was about to abandon my post, thinking the fisher was not going to show, when a large patch of brown fur slipped along the deck just below the window and went to the north feeder. Mounting the railing, the fisher yanked the feeder around shaking as many seeds as possible into the feeding tray. Then a blue jay boldly swooped down from its high perch in the trees right at the fisher, touching the shoulders with its feet. The fisher dropped the feeder to stand on all fours on the railing looking around as if wondering what was that? It quickly returned to feeding and the jay flew in again brushing the back of the animal with its wings. This time the fisher ignored the bird and the jay wisely gave up the attack.
On moving to the south feeder, the fisher yanked the feeder around looking for suet. Only finding remnants, it soon left. I checked my trail cam photos and confirmed the fisher had made a late visit to the feeders the night before (~10:15 p.m.), and was undoubtedly responsible for making off with the whole suet cake.
Commercially made suet cakes are cheap enough, but I wasn’t sure I should be giving whole cakes to one animal. So, this time I cut the cake into large pieces and wedged them into the suet holder in such a fashion it would be difficult for the animal to remove them.
The fisher did not return the next day, but did return the night before and made off with all the wedged suet cake. I had to come up with a better solution.
So far that was the last we saw of the fisher. I have since tied the suet cakes to the holder, and the fisher to our knowledge hasn’t returned to test my fix.
Fisher from Where?
Fishers live in a variety of forests, from coniferous through mixed-wood to deciduous. They used to be present from the northern boreal forest south into the parkland of central Alberta and all through the foothill and mountain zones. However, forestry, agriculture and development in the parkland and foothills, combined with trapping and poisoning, extirpated the fisher from these areas. So, perhaps fishers are reinvading their former range…? Or were they helped?
Back in the early 1990s, the Alberta Research Council released 20 or more fishers into the aspen parkland of central Alberta in the area around Elk Island National Park and the Blackfoot Grazing Reserve east of Edmonton in an attempt to restore fishers to their former range. Those animals quickly dispersed. So, it’s possible the fisher visiting our feeders is the progeny of that introduction. Then I discovered that the Edmonton and Area Land Trust recently captured images of a fisher in their wildlife camera on the trust’s Glory Hills conservation area—not too far from our home. Was that another consequence of the ARC introduction, or did these animals disperse to our area from their boreal habitats? I don’t know but you can bet I’ll be keeping my eyes open for further sightings.
And speaking of introductions, over the last few years, the Calgary Zoo has been shipping Alberta fishers (caught by trappers in northern Alberta) to the Cascade Mountains in Washington State where fishers were extirpated in the mid-20th century. The reintroductions are the result of a partnership among the Calgary Zoo , the Alberta Trappers Association, Conservation Northwest, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. National Park Service. If the northern Alberta fisher population is deemed viable enough to provide individuals for transplant, maybe it’s productive enough to make a comeback into its former range!
Badry, M.J., G. Proulx and P.M. Woodard, 1993, “Reintroduction of Fisher in the Aspen Parkland of Alberta,” (PDF) Edmonton Naturalist, 21(1).
Pattie, Don and Chris Fisher, 1999, Mammals of Alberta, Lone Pine Publishing.
Soper, J. Dewey, 1964, The Mammals of Alberta, The Hamly Press Ltd.
U.S. National Park Service, 2019, Washington Fisher Restoration
Comments are always welcome (below).
Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics: