Wild Things

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.

This entry was posted in Domestic Life. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Wild Things

  1. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    It seems to me that we should see cities (especially urban-suburban sprawl cities of the type that are common in North America, Australia etc) as some combination of a new ecological niche and new territory. Currently they are not highly populated by mammals, but not because they can’t be but because the mammals are only beginning to explore their possibilities. We should expect more and more animals to move into these areas, and over time we might even see speciation, perhaps even adaptive radiation of the sort that happens when a place like Madagascar suddenly becomes colonized (maybe not, because urban-suburban sprawls are not as isolated as islands).

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. In this case, for example, fishers almost died out in the Northeast not because of deliberate ecocide (compared to wolves, for example) but because the Northeast became so thoroughly deforested. Now that it has reforested so remarkably, suburban sprawl areas are actually a pretty good habitat for a predator that hunts small mammals, is secretive, can be arboreal, and is small. There’s plenty of food–just in my own yard, there’s probably 10-15 chipmunks, easily as many squirrels, a family of woodchucks, field mice, rabbits, low-nesting birds. Passing through there’s skunks, raccoons, domestic cats, possum. Probably shrews, certainly tree rats, in the area somewhere. That’s a food locker full of possibilities for a member of the weasel family. There’s a pond not too far from here at a Quaker meditation center, and then there’s Crum Creek less than half a mile east, as well as another smaller creek to our west. If a fox can make it around here, a weasel or fisher could easily do so as well. The only animals you wouldn’t expect to be able to operate at this level of suburban density would be the very large (bears) or social animals that travel in large groups (wolves). I can definitely see this triggering speciation that eventually follows from some kind of behavioral adaptation/recolonization of old environments as well. In a way, this is a test for many species about whether they’ve got the potential to be ecological generalists, or whether they’re too adapted to a single niche.

  3. hestal says:

    Your experience with the experts reminds me of Connie Hagar of Rockport, Texas. She was an avid birder and compiled detailed data of the birdlife in her coastal town. Her reports were greeted with skepticism and even ridicule by the experts. But over many years she gradually proved them wrong and thus introduced them to the Central Flyway. The city of Rockport has dedicated a pond to her and Roger Tory Peterson wrote the foreword to her biography, “Connie Hagar, the life history of a Texas birdwatcher” by Karen McCracken.

    Peterson tells of her encounter with Ludlow Griscom, the most renowned birder of his day, who came to see Mrs. Hagar. He was doubtful of her reports, and as he sat in her living room poring over her field notes he turned to her and said, “Surely Mrs. Hagar you don’t mean that Wied’s crested [brown crested] flycatchers are present this far north in Texas? Are you sure?” She replied, “Mr. Griscom, if you will move your chair back a bit and look out the window, you will see a pair building their nest.”

    The great man stayed for a while and learned from her and she from him. It was grand.

    I’ve learned in 59 years of birding, and after having seen a flamingo in a national wildlife preserve in Oregon, that birds, and no doubt fishers, can be any place they damn well please.

  4. Kieran says:

    A Chupacabra, surely.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Naw, I have drinks with chupacabras every once in a while–I bring wine, they bring blood. Wasn’t one of them.

  6. laurel says:

    Coyotes, of course, are the primo example of adapting to whatever ecology is available. True fact: there are reports of coyotes hunting big game in packs one or two hundred years ago, when that was a viable path. True fact #2: I know someone who once saw a coyote being chased by a very angry deer through the UC Santa Cruz campus.

    Raccoons too. I’ve heard stories of them working together to lift weighted platforms; my grandmother’s found them in her kitchen eating fruit out of a basket; I’ve heard them make crazy noises. Not to say it wasn’t a fisher, but I’m not sure I’d ever be confident that I’d heard all the noises raccoons make (or was in other ways completely sure of their limits).

Comments are closed.