So apparently you don’t have to go to rural Vermont to see some interesting animals. In late May, we heard the absolutely blood-curdling vocalization of an animal of some kind prowling around in our front yard late at night. I had never heard anything quite like it. It wasn’t an owl: the sound was quite low to the ground. It was very loud. It was almost like an injured human in some respects, but in other ways very unlike any noise a person could make. I got a quick look at something darting across the neighbor’s yard that night: all I could see clearly is that it was a small mammal, a bit bigger than a cat, fast and low-slung.
So last night our mystery animal was back, right by our front door. I don’t think I’m easily rattled by such things, but this sound really does make the hair on the back of your neck rise. It goes straight to the primal part of your brain, like you’re a cro-magnon who hears some dangerous animal just beyond the periphery of the campfire. My wife opened the door and whatever it was actually growled at her and made a little intimidating semi-rush towards the door. I got a much better look at it this time from a window.
I’m pretty sure it was a fisher. It was far too big for a weasel. The fur was dark, it had a long tail, and the basic physiognomy of a mustelid. Now this seems a little unlikely, I know, as Pennsylvania reintroduced the fisher in 1994, and mostly at sites in northcentral Pennsylvania. Moreover, a lot of the older literature on fishers suggests that their habitat is limited to coniferous old-growth forests. But poking around a bit, I see that elsewhere in the Northeast, fishers have been aggressively moving into suburban areas where there are mixed-wood forests nearby–and in some cases, making a good meal out of the local cats. I also see that there’s a population that was reintroduced in West Virginia in 1969 that is thought to have spread into southern Pennsylvania.
I can’t think of any other possibility. Definitely not a skunk or a raccoon: I’ve seen plenty of both in my life, and heard all the sounds that raccoons can make at night. From my sighting, I’d say it was definitely not a fox, though we do have a red fox in this neighborhood that we’ve seen from time to time. The animal runs, moves and is built in a way very different from a fox. Not a coyote: I’ve also seen and heard many, many coyote. Not out of the question that it could be a bobcat, but the body was too elongated and low-slung for that, I think.
I notice that the wildlife specialists quoted in the NY Times article about possible fisher sightings in New Jersey are skeptical, and in a way that kind of annoys me. Partly because other species have turned out to have surprising adaptability to suburban conditions while supposed experts claimed that they couldn’t have until the evidence became too overwhelming. Partly because both of the people cited in the NY Times article say that they’ve never heard of fishers or martens vocalizing, but I’ve found a goodly number of sources just this morning that describe a wide range of vocalizations, including something that sounds rather like what we heard. I know people have a tendency to exaggerate, and so wildlife control specialists tend towards skepticism. Trust me on this one: it’s not anything I’ve encountered before. It might be that a fox could make a noise like this, but I got a very good look at this animal from the window, and it was not a fox.