What to know about the fisher cats that Vermonters have been spotting recently

In the last week several Vermonters have recounted their sighting of a curious carnivore. The fisher cat, as it's commonly known, is active this time of year and while it may look soft and cuddly, it is a smart and efficient predator.

The Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, known for its rehabilitation of wild birds of prey and walking trails for observing bird and forest habitat, caught a fisher on camera on its Farrar Trail on March 15. The creature seemed to be downing an easy meal.

While the animal may be called a fisher cat, it doesn't typically eat fish unless it finds a dead one laying next to a body of water, nor is it related to cats. It is part of the weasel family and is most closely related to a mink or a marten.

They are carnivorous creatures preferring to dine on small mammals like mice, moles, squirrels, hares and sometimes even fawn. But they are opportunistic eaters and will scavenge; eat birds, amphibians or reptiles; or make a meal of fruit and nuts.

One of its most interesting diet staples is porcupine. According to Vermont Fish & Wildlife, the fisher is known to climb a tree occupied by a porcupine and force it out on the edge of a branch until the porcupine falls off, becoming stunned as it hits the ground. The fisher then strikes at its unprotected face, first.

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts shared what fresh tracks look like. Fisher may be seen during the day or night as their hunting times vary. Females tend to keep a territory of three to eight square miles and males six to 15 square miles. However, the males may travel 20 miles a day for food or during mating season.

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March through April is breeding season. In March a litter of up to four kits could be nestled in a tree cavity den. After the babies are a week old the female periodically leaves to seek out numerous suitors during the next month. Through a process of delayed implantation, the fertilized egg's development is halted until 10 to 11 months later when the embryo resumes growth. As a result, female fisher spend most of their lives in some stage of pregnancy.

The fisher has made a name for itself for being a vicious predator, akin to a wolverine, by attacking creatures sometimes larger than itself. But, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife says, it is often characterized as being more savage than it deserves and that it is an important part of Vermont's ecosystem.

In the 1800s the fisher was often trapped, largely for its fur and to protect domestic animals from attack, and its population dwindled. Recently it has come back and been seen all over Vermont. There is still a heavily-regulated trapping season each year, according to Vermont Fish & Wildlife, from Dec. 1 through 31.

Some pet owners are most concerned for their cats as fisher will sometimes attack a domestic cat outdoors. Cats tend to make up 2% or less of a fisher's diet, according to a study in Massachusetts, but cats could also attract coyote, fox, bobcat, and great-horned owl.

Fisher are most active during late evening and early dawn in spring and fall. This is a good time to catch them on camera.

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Contact reporter April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: Vermonters have several sightings of fisher cats. What to know.