Although it is frequently referred to as the “fisher cat,” the fisher (Martes pennanti) is actually a medium-sized (4-13 lbs) member of the weasel family. Here in New England I frequently hear people talk about hearing an eerie screeching in the night, which they attribute to the fisher. The stories go that the fisher makes this terrible high-pitched screaming, which sounds like a woman being murdered, either when they are mating or when they are attacking another animal. The internet is also rife with postings and stories on the “fisher cat screech” and YouTube videos of purported fisher screams.
However, when I researched fisher ecology and behavior, I was unable to find any reference to fishers making any loud screams or screeches except for one old reference from a fur farm. Laberee (1941) recounted the following description of a fisher pair mating: “Soon the love-making began. And if there was anyone within a mile of us who did not think that some large animal was being tortured to death, that person must have been deaf. Such noise! Such yowls! Such howling! No thousand cats caterwauling on a backyard fence at midnight ever could make such noise. But that was before copulation began. Once the pair mated there was not a sound. And the moment the mating was over, the female insisted on getting back to her pen immediately… The mating lasted from 10:17 A.M. until 4:27 P.M., six hours and ten minutes. The next day she mated again for four hours and twenty-five minutes.”
I even exchanged emails with the author of one book on fishers, Roger Powell. He told me that to his knowledge, fishers do not make an eerie screaming sound. The only vocalizations that fishers generally make are quiet chuckles and occasional hisses or growls. However, he did add a caveat to his answer that wild animals can and do surprise us and wild critters like fishers can be good at keeping their secrets.
Having listened to many supposed fisher screams on the internet, I think that people most frequently confuse the calls of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) for the screams of the fisher. For some good examples of the various fox calls, check out this video.
Here is another video with actual footage of the foxes making the various calls.
So the next time that someone tells you that they’re sure their missing cat was killed by a fisher because they heard one screeching in the night, try to reassure them that it was probably just a fox and they should definitely keep searching for their lost cat. This is not to say that fishers are not a potential danger to a lost or outdoor-access cat, but there are many other more likely causes for a cat to go missing.
Since I first published this article in 2011, several people have sent me interesting videos that I would like to share. Two of these videos do indeed show a fisher making a screeching noise. In both cases, the fisher appears to feel threatened, so I don’t know if this would be the same type of vocalization that fishers would make for other reasons. Most non-social animals only tend to vocalize loudly to attract mates during the breeding season or to warn con-specifics away from their territory. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has heard a fisher whether this is the type of sound that they heard. Skip ahead to 1:30 to hear the fisher in the first video.
Of all the videos that I received, this is the only one that I’m pretty confident is not a fox and I don’t know what it could be. Is this the legendary fisher cat screech or does anyone recognize this as some other animal?
One assertion of the fisher cat screech that I believe is false is that the fisher would make this call when attacking another animal. Prior to making a kill, the last thing a predator wants to do is alert the prey that it is being stalked, and unless an animal lives in a pack and wants to attract its pack-mates, it is generally not in their best interest to make a lot of loud noises that might attract other potential predators to a recent kill. Here is a video of a fisher attacking a gray fox. Note that the fisher is quite silent during the attack while the poor fox is very vocal. This is a graphic video and I would not suggest watching it if you are concerned that your missing cat or dog was attacked by a fisher.
As always, I am still very much interested in receiving links to any videos that actually show a fisher vocalizing in some way.
For more accounts and possible videos of fisher vocalizations, check out Fisher Cat Screech.
Buskirk, Steven W., Alton S. Harestad, Martin G. Raphael, and Roger A. Powell, editors. 1994. Martens, Sables, and Fishers: Biology and Conservation (Comstock Book). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Harrison, Daniel J., Angela K. Fuller and Gilbert Proulx. 2004. Martens and Fishers (Martes) in Human-Altered Environments: An International Perspective. New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.
Kelly, George M. 1977. Fisher (Martes pennanti) Biology in the White Mountain National Forest and Adjacent Areas. University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Ph.D. Dissertation.
Labaree, E.E. 1941. Breeding and Reproduction in Fur Bearing Animals. Fur Trade Journal of Canada. Toronto.
Powell, Roger A. 1993. The Fisher: Life History, Ecology, and Behavior. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (If you only read one book, I would suggest this one.)