(This 1003rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 13, 2010.)





I have received an increasing number of calls about members of the weasel family. Their formal scientific family is Mustelidae, that name derived from their musty-smelling anal scent glands. The sea otter is the only family member without these glands.


Members of this family in North America are American marten, fisher, least weasel, ermine (or short-tailed weasel), long-tailed weasel, American mink, black-footed ferret, wolverine, American badger, Northern river otter and sea otter. Skunks, which were formerly classified with them as mustilids for they share those glands (and smell far worse), have now been moved to a separate family, the Mephitidae.


Ever since my good friend Alice McKale called my attention to the handsome little ermine that visited her Eggertsville yard for several winters, readers have been reporting other weasels and otters in western New York and martens in the Adirondacks. We are well outside the range of the ferret, wolverine and sea otter, but one reader even told of encountering a badger in western Pennsylvania.


I have, however, not yet received a report from a reader of a fisher, even from the Adirondacks or the canoe country north of Toronto, where these animals occur regularly. And I have never seen one myself. Although a small population has continued in the Adirondacks, this mammal was probably extirpated from the rest of the state in the late 19th or early 20th century at a time when its fur was more valuable. It was also dependent on large tracts of forest and, as the land was cleared, their populations became more concentrated and they were easy to trap in the more restricted woodlands.


The fisher is now, however, making a comeback. New York DEC biologist Anne Oyer provided much information about these animals. She tells me that, although fishers remain uncommon there, they are regularly reported in the Southern Tier.


Where did they come from? There has been no western New York reintroduction program like the one for otters. The DEC did trap some Adirondack fishers, but those went to the Catskills. The answer is that they arrived, like the wild turkey, from Pennsylvania. The program that affected us was carried out there.


One reason for Pennsylvania's special interest in this animal: John James Audubon's portrait of the fisher in his "Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America" is of one captured near Harrisburg in 1844.


In a program that began exactly 150 years later, in 1994, wildlife officials released 190 fishers in the Sproul State Forest in north-central Pennsylvania. It is almost certainly that population that has expanded to include western New York.


And our state is now well prepared to receive them. In 1890, New York had been reduced to less than 25% forest; today that figure is over 60%.


Fishers, also called pekan, pequam or wejack by Native Americans, are big weasels. Although they have the low profile of weasels (and dachshunds) their bodies are about 30 inches long with their bushy tails adding another foot in length.  Even a mink is only a quarter of their size.


I suspect that many of the dozens of black panther reports that gather on DEC desks are really fisher sightings for most fishers are very dark brown animals.


Fishers are excellent climbers and swimmers. They feed on small mammals, especially rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and birds, and readily feed on carrion. They are omnivores, also eating fruit, nuts and fungi, but they are better known for their predation on porcupines.


Country dwellers appreciate this last role for porcupines can become pests. Their love for salt leads them to chew on anything you have touched and your sweat has penetrated. The arms of porch furniture are special targets.


Of course, porkies have a good defense against most animals. They turn away, raise those quills and wave their pincushion tails, while hiding their more vulnerable heads against or under a log. This may not work especially well against tool-bearing humans, but it does against most other animals.


Fishers (and wolverines too) can usually maneuver around these defenses, biting at the porcupine's head until it weakens and can be flipped over to reveal its defenseless stomach. These attacks are not always successful and fishers are sometimes injured or even killed by the quills.-- Gerry Rising