The “Fisher”– Obscure, Reclusive North American Mammal You Have Never Seen

Fisher CatIII First of all, what are Fishers? Most people have never heard of them. Fishers (Martes pennanti) are a small carnivorous mammal found native to North American forests of northern U.S. and Canada.* Biologists generally agree that all North American fishers belong to the same species; they are considered monotypic–there are no subspecies. They belong to the Mustelidae, the weasel family and are most closely related to the American marten, only larger–similar in size to domestic cats. They may reach 15 pounds in weight with length of nearly 4 feet. Fishers dwell in forests of Canada and the northern United States. Although it is sometimes called a “cat,” it is not closely related to felines although both are classified as carnivores.

Male fishers are much larger than females, although similar in appearance. Bodies are set low to the ground. They have distinctive scent glands. Fishers are able to turn their hind feet almost 180 degrees, which allows them to descend trees head first. Their fur changes with the seasons. When winter approaches their brown to black fur becomes dense and glossy. Belly hair is usually brown with occasional patches of cream colored hair. During late summer molting cycle, fur becomes more variable and often becomes lighter, even mottled.

Fishers prefer to hunt prey in a full forest with canopy (overstory) and usually avoid humans. They are solitary hunters and are omnivores. They seek food around fallen trees eating berries/fruits, mushrooms and insects, in addition to small mammals and birds, especially snowshoe hares and porcupines. They are the only known predators of porcupines, which they attack by biting the porcupine’s head multiple times, killing them in 20 to 30 minutes. There is evidence of carrion feeding—on dead carcasses of moose and deer. Even larger animals such as wild turkey, bobcat and lynx are sometimes known to have been preyed upon. Fishers have few enemies aside from humans.

Fishers usually den in hollow trees. Three or four blind and helpless (altricial) “kits” are born in the spring, covered with very fine hair. Their eyes open at about 7 weeks and they begin to climb at 8 weeks during which time they are dependent upon mother’s milk, soon changing to a more solid diet. Adult females care for their young for about 5 months when they are pushed out of the den to become self sufficient on their own.

The female parent goes into estrus soon after giving birth and leaves the den to find a mate. The fisher reproductive cycle lasts about a year. Fishers have delayed implantation, that is, the resulting fertilized egg becomes a blastocyst (pre-embryo) and doesn’t implant on the uterine wall of the female until the following spring. Males reach reproductive maturity at one or two years of age while females are reproductively active at one year, giving birth to their first litters at age two.

Fishers were trapped for their fur in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their pelts were in such high demand that intensive trapping resulted in their being exterminated from some of their U. S. habitat in the early 1900s. In the 1920s, when pelt prices were high, fur farmers attempted to raise fishers domestically. However, delayed implantation typical of fishers, made breeding quite difficult and most fur farming ceased when pelts dropped in value in the 1940’s.

Fishers are most active in early morning and late afternoon hours (crepuscular) year around, although they have been observed to be active during the day and nighttime also.  They are loners, only associating with others for mating purposes. The size of a fishers hunting range is from 3 square miles in summers to 5 square miles in the winters, though it may be much larger if habitat food is scarce. Male and female territories are overlapping.

Internal parasites are cestodes and nematodes. In captivity (zoos), fishers have lived more than 10 years. Fishers may vocalize with a low chuckle (excitement), a hiss and a growl, the latter two associated with aggression.

A recent newspaper article** discussed the possibility of Northern Rockies Fishers (Martes pennanti) being designated as an Endangered Species. Due to trapping, poisoning and habitat loss, a year long study will be undertaken by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  In the past, fishers have occupied northern Rocky Mountain ranges in Washington, Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, though at present they are thought to be found only along the Idaho-Montana border. Only Montana presently allows trappers to harvest fishers—up to 7 annually.

*Powell, Roger A. 1981. Martes pennanti.   Mammalian Species, No. 156. American Society of Mammalogists publication.

**Matthew Brown, Associated Press, 13 Jan 2016. Feds consider protections for cat-like predator. Deseret News, Salt Lake City, UT

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Century Old Camping and Outdoor Tips from Francis H. Buzzacott*

 img271“Travel light—but right—there’s a deal of difference in these words—just as much as between roughing it and smoothing it” [Quoting from the author’s experience 40 years of experience as a trapper, hunter and guide]*

In this 103 year old book, Buzzacott begins by saying, “Don’t burden yourself with a host of the other things unless you wish for trouble taking care of them.”  He continues, “We believe in every step of progression as will be evident; want to supply you with every comfort that you may actually need, but those pneumatic beds and fixings; those telescopic kettles, cups and ‘what nots’ banish from your mind and “ye have coin to spare and the wagon to hire” Let it go to the Ration Chest, Tent Outfit, Camp Furniture, Armory or Rod for with such as these nature supplies you with other things much better and ‘twere wiser so.” [Ed. Note: Remember, the only vehicles of generally available mechanized travel at the time of this writing were the railroad and steamboat.]

Fires. Utilize only the flame at one end for boiling and stewing. The hot ashes or live coals only should be used for frying, broiling, baking, roasting, etc., mainly not just to save wood, but to lessen danger of burning, spilling, etc. This advice results in very little smoke. Amateurs cook over a big, roaring, smoky campfire, large and hot enough to roast an ox. To start, let you wood smoke and the fire burn before you commence cooking; when ready, the live coals will give you even more heat than you require for a small party. Keep wood dry by stacking; should rain fall, your wood will remain fairly dry and your camp neat, besides.

A Hot Sweat Bath. Take hot stones with a little water sprinkled on them, cover yourself (and them) with a blanket.

A Good Camp Lamp can be made with clear tallow fat (fat of animals) melted down and put in an old tin can. Improvised wicks can be made from unraveled cotton or tent canvas, put one end in can and the other end on edge of can and wire.

A Good Camp Spoon can be made from a shell and split stick. A fork can easily be whittled. A Good knife can be made from a piece of tin cut from an old can and inserted into a split stick, lashed tight with a wire. A Good dinner plate or cooking utensil can be made from a piece of green thick barky tree, using the smooth part of it for food. A Good fire shovel can be made from a piece of tin (can) and a split stick. It is also an excellent broiler.

To correctly ascertain the points of a compass, face the sun in the morning; spread out your arms straight from the body—in front of you is the east, behind you is west, to your right hand the south and north before the left hand. If the sun doesn’t shine, note the tops of pine trees, they invariably dip to the north.

If Soaking Wet with no dry clothes handy, take off wet garments and wring them out as dry as possible—put on again—you are less liable to take cold and it will be much warmer, besides.

Don’t sleep with the Moon Shining on your Face, you can get a moonstruck, and it’s almost as bad as a sunstroke.

Don’t Sit or Lay on the Bare Ground. In the military, statistics have proven the ½ of the sicknesses incident to camp and field life is due to neglect of this important caution. By all means avoid sitting or sleeping on the ground, is a golden rule in camp, even though it feels dry!

For Washing Flannels and Woolens—Don’t wring out. Hang them up dripping wet and they won’t wrinkle up or shrink.

If thirsty and Can’t Find water—Place a pebble or button in the mouth and keep it there; it will surprise you with the result, and relieves that dryness entirely—try it!

Don’t Have Loaded firearms in tent; a simple fall of rifle or gun may have serious results—make this a rule!

Distress signal is three shots fired in succession, another shot a minute or so afterwards.  Conserve ammunition.

To Make a Fire Without Matches. Take a dry handkerchief or cotton lining of your coat, scrape out a very fine lint, as few handfuls. Using the crystal of your watch, compass, spectacle, a sun glass can be made that will ignite the lint, which can be blown into a fire.

Limit of Man’s Pack.—Don’t forget 40 pounds is the limit of a man’s pack, more is making a pack mule of him.

Prevent Sickness. Keep the bowels open, head cool, feet dry and the will be little, if any, sickness in camp.

Lost from Camp. “When you find you have lost your way, don’t lose your head—keep cool; try and not let your brains get into your feet. By this we mean don’t run around and make things worse and play yourself out. First: Sit down and think; cool off, then climb a tree, or hill, and endeavor to locate some familiar object you passed, so as to retrace your steps. If it gets dark, build a rousing camp fire. Ten to one you will be missed from camp and your comrades will soon be searching for you, and your fire will be seen by them. (If you have been wise, read your Manual and see cooking, etc., without utensils, fire without matches, camp shelter, and the human compass, etc.). Give distress signals, but don’t waste all your ammunition thus. It’s ten to one that morning and a clear head, after a comfortable night (if you make it so), will reveal to you the fact that your camp is much closer to you than you imagined.”

“I have seen good men lost within a rifle shot of camp. A cool head can accomplish much—a rattled one, nothing.”

“To locate position—note the limbs and bark of trees—the north side of trees can be noted by the thickness and general roughness. Moss most generally is to be found near the roots on the north side. Note also—limbs or longer branches, which generally are to be found longer on the south side of trees, while the branches exposed to the north most generally are knotty, twisted and drooped. In the forest the tops of the pine trees dip or trend to the north; also, if you find water, follow it; it generally leads somewhere—where civilization exists. The tendency of people lost, is to travel in a circle uselessly; by all means, keep cool and deliberate, blaze your way, by leaving marks on trees to indicate direction you have taken; read up on this Manual, which should be always kept in your pocket when in camp or out; it’s made the right size to carry there. A cool head and a stout heart, and lost in camp is really a comedy—not the tragedy—some people make it. This is the time a compass is invaluable.”

*Francis H. Buzzacott. 1905. Revised edition 1913.   American and Canadian Sportman’s Encyclopedia of Valuable Instruction.  M. A. Donohoe & Co.

Century-Old Advice on Bears and Fishing

img267Francis H. Buzzacott — Trapper, Hunter and Guide  From his 1913 book, American and Canadian Sportsman’s Encyclopedia of Valuable Instruction ($1).

Extracts of some of this century old, very interesting information follow* (some of which has been supplanted by more recent modern research).

Notes on Hunting Bears: The easiest and best way to hunt bears is with hounds. Bears are mostly omnivorous (eating both plant products and animal flesh), living mostly on vegetable foods, nuts, berries or animal flesh, with especial fondness for honey. In hunting bears, some rules are: 1st, commence firing at long range. 2nd, never turn you back or run from him, stand your ground, but run—never! 3rd, If you have a companion, spread out so as to detract the bear alternatively. 4th, Preserve you position.   Do not aim for the head as bears have massive skulls with formidable bones. Never tackle a male and female with cubs, walk around them, even if you have to walk all day. If a mama bear with cubs charges you, aim for one of the cubs. A cry of pain from a cub will deter an attacking mother bear as she charges.

The Successful Fisherman “is the one who familiarizes with the ways of fish, he who studies out and observes the peculiar traits, habits and haunts of the various fish he sets out to capture, who aquaints himself with the facts as to their sense of sight, scent and hearing, their mode of existence, foods, likes, seasons, etc., thus qualifying himself to better under stand them, so as to take advantage of their ignorance, avid their read perception of things, and fool their cunning.”

Fish sight is unusually acute and they are possessed of the faculties of both hearing and feeling sound. They breathe the air that is dissolved in water. When water is depleted of air, fish will suffocate. Fishes eyes are peculiarly placed enabling them to see plainly anything that is above or about them for an unusually long distance. However, they have difficulty seeing on a level of directly under them. Their sense of smell and hearing are well developed. It is certain that fish possess faculties which enable them to perceive and distinguish odors, while various scents either attract or repel them. In most cases fish, like snakes, see motion only. Their sense of taste is poor and they rely mostly on sight and smell in choosing their foods. Most fish are carnivorous (flesh eating) and they are mostly extremely voracious—either eat or be eaten–applies to them with unusual force. Prey in most cases is swallowed whole, and parental fish sometimes devour their own offspring.

Having few nerves, fish probably do not experience but little pain. Fresh water fish can go for extended periods of time with little or no food; salt water fish have much less survival without food.  In all fish, teeth are shed and renewed at intervals during the entire course of their life when they do not seem to need or care for food—same in spawning. In wintertime, due to inaction, certain species cease to feed entirely, lying almost inactive in deeper water. Big fish usually prefer solitude and inhabit the deepest, choicest portions of the waters they dwell in, usually the deeper, cooler spots, especially those where winds and currents carry of drive floating or other foods about them. When feeding they are alert to any sight or sound about them and invariably hide behind projecting rocks, banks, stumps or weeds or in shadier waters where they can observe and be hid from their prey, thus able to locate, dart out and seize all those of food that come within their reach, even other fish approaching their own size.

It is a good rule, usually, to go either in early morn of later in the afternoon before dark.  The cloudier the weather the better are chances for success, especially be it before a storm or rain. Fish are often very fickle. Today they may bite almost anything offered, yet few are to be seen. Yesterday, plenty were in evidence, yet for some reason, they absolutely refused to bite. Here, they may go for any fly, an hour hence, none or very specific kinds of fly brings a bite. Fish have acute senses of smell, which with their sharp sense of sight allows them to be very selective and choosy in feeding. Truly, it can be said, “that the way of fish no man knoweth.”

 Wrinkles and Kinks for Fishermen, Anglers, Etc. Keep Angle Worms not in a tin can, but in a small porous earthen jar (flower pot). Fill it with green moss. Wet. Feed with the white of a hard boiled egg, placed therein, or a teaspoonful of cream or bruised celery—they will assume a pink color, live long and be attractive. Don’t drown them inmud. Cover hole in bottom or pot. Live maggots are a splendid bait, taken from meat that is fly blown. If kept in a small box, with corn meal, there is no more objection to handling them than to any worm or other slimy bait. Try it once and be convinced.

Early spring—use very small Midge flies for trout

Don’t use too Big Flies or Hooks—better small than too large

Fish Scent or Lure—A little assafoetida, oil of anise or swee sicily; a drop pinched on your bait will attract fish to it.

The difficult places to fish are just where the fish are.

Old fish like new flies. Young fish take old ones.

Fish Wardens—When you catch thieves cut off all their pants buttons. They can’t run well and hold up their pants at the same time.

Kill every Water Snake—you find. They eat millions of fish eggs every year.

Frogging at Night—Take a very bright light, locate your frog, and turn the light on him squarely. It dazzles him and you can pick him up like a potato. Don’t think he’ll jump away; the light confuses him and he forgets himself.

In Casting for Bass—Choose the edge of lily pads, weeks, rushes, etc. Pickerel, also.

Fish Scratches or Wounds—Use common salt and vinegar, or such them sell and put a chew of tobacco around it and bind it on.

Never Let Your Shadow—Be observed by fish you are after. Get behind a tree, bank, or cut a few branches so as to hide yourself behind them, or lay in the high grass and crawl t the most likely spots, especially in trout fishing.

Keep Your Spoons Bright—Revolving spoons can be scoured with tobacco ashes or wood ashes, polish them with a dry rag and elbow grease.

Keep the Sun—In front or at the side of you when fishing.

A Nest of Very Small Mice—Make excellent trout or bass bait.

Open the Stomach–Of your first fish and see what they are feeding on, then follow up on this “tip.”

Don’t Blame the Fish—For not biting, or taking the fly. Perhaps you’re to blame. Think over conditions and inspect your bait and tackle

To Find Worms—Choose a manure pile or after a heavy rain, when they crawl to the surface of the ground.

Black Bass Go in pairs all summer. If you catch one, look out for its mate.

In Fishing for Black Bass—It is next to useless to cast on perfectly smooth water.

Use Small Spoons—When trolling for bass                                                           

*Buzzacott, F. H. 1913. American and Canadian Sportsman’s Encyclopedia of Valuable Instruction. M. A. Donohue & Co. 512 p.

What Is An Opossum?

W2Dopossum2In North America, many of us are familiar with the Virginia opossum, a medium-sized mammal about the size of a large cat. These are common in our North American southern states and are often seen as road kills along highways. Opossums are unique mammals–they are called marsupials and are most commonly found in Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, adjacent islands and South America. Besides the opossum, other well-known marsupials are the koala (teddy) bear and kangaroo. Some American opossums have prehensile tails, that is, tails can be wrapped around limbs, supporting the main body. Marsupials are mammals with pouches (with milk glands) in which young are carried. Newly born opossums are very poorly developed (altricial) after less than two weeks of growth (or gestation). [Human babies require nine months of pre-birth development.] Fetal or baby mouse opossums are very small (about ¼ of an inch and abt. 2 ounces) and as many as 25 can fit into a teaspoon. At birth (parturition), young opossums rear legs are only stubs whereas front legs are better developed for when they migrate to the pouch (marsupiam), a distance of about 2 inches in a swimming motion, where they attach themselves to a pouch nipple for up to 100 days. Average numbers of female teats or nipples is 13, although 25 or so young may be born at a time. Only rarely are all available teats utilized. Those young not able to find and attach to a teat soon perish.

Ecology of the Virginia opossum* suggests occupation of a wide variety of habitats, from dry areas to streams and swamps. Home range, or area in which individual opossums move about is estimated to be from 12 to 58 acres. Opossums often inhabit burrows of other animals or are arboreal (tree dwelling). They appear to have few predators, though feathered enemies may be a major source of mortality for young animals less than a year of age. Opossums may live from 1 to 4 or more years or even more. Their diet is mostly omnivorous consisting mainly of insects, carrion (dead animals) and fruits/grains. External parasites are few, but internal parasites include nematodes and trematodes and opossums are a reservoir host for important communicable diseases. The Virginia opossum may feign death if severely threatened and often exudes a greenish solution from two anal glands which ostensibly discourages enemies. Unless attacked, after feigning death for 15 minutes or so, the opossum rouses itself and moves along on its way.

One very small marsupial opossum found from northern South America (Panama, Colombia, Venezuela) to the Islands of Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada is called Robinson’s mouse opossum (Marmosa robinsoni). This species lives in dry shrublands and deciduous forests. A recent article in the Journal of Mammalogy**, a leading scientific journal devoted exclusively to mammals, compared populations of Robinson’s opossum in various geographical areas to determine which are most closely related.  The authors compared cytochrome-b genes and a transferase proteins and found that, surprisingly, central and eastern populations in Venezuela are more closely related to Trinidad and Tobago populations than to those closer on the Paraguaná peninsula in northwestern Venezuela. The Paraguaná peninsula populations of Venezuela are more closely related to more distant populations to the west in Colombia and Panama. The article authors suggest that events of the Pleistocene glacial events lowered sea level, allowing land connections from islands to the mainland over which ancestral opossums emigrated.

I personally had some experience with Marmosa elegans,  the small elegant mouse opossum in Chile. As an international service team adult member at the World Scout Jamboree near Santiago, Chile, I helped scouts from many nations better understand exploitation of exotic animals. For instance, parrots and other attractive house birds are trapped in their tropical homelands and sold. However, the cost is immense, as an average of 9 birds die for every one that is successfully marketed! Often, Stately and valuable trees are felled for the sole purpose of capturing and subsequently selling birds from nests attached high up trees trunks.

Following the jamboree, I was prepared to trap small mammals and deposit them in a stateside university mammal collection which had poor Chilean faunal representation. I traveled with a colleague from the University of Chile to a university-owned wildlife reservation. There I trapped several species of small mammals and prepared them for preservation in the museum mammal collection. Several of my trapped specimens turned out to be the elegant mouse opossum (Marmosa elegans). They were small and but quite attractive. It took awhile for me to identify them as I prepared them as study skins.

The next time you see an opossum, remember that you are looking at a unique mammal, certainly quite primitive as compared to all other North American fauna.

*Didelphis virginiana. by John McManus. Mammalian Species, No. 40, 1974.
**Phylogeography of Marmosa robinsini: Insights into the biogeography of dry forests in northern South America by Eliécer Gutiérrez, Robert Anderson, Robert Voss, José Ochoa-G, Marisol Aguilera, and Sharon Jansa. Journal of Mammalogy, 2014,

One-Eyed Sentinel of Aberdeen—A 1970’s Saga


Perched on a railing four stories up, the two Great Horned Owls appear from the street below as tiny, feathered statuettes, though in reality they approached two feet in height with a wingspan of up to five feet. For almost four years, with the exception of about a month each summer, this pair of owls has kept their vigil in the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Brown County Courthouse tower, only a few yards away from the great multifaceted clocks. Chimes boom out on the hour, but these sounds so foreign to nature appear to have had little effect on these birds of prey.

The female, with her blind right eye colored an opaque yellow, has laid a total of nine eggs in the past three seasons. In the early spring of 1976, she initially laid two white eggs which froze–perhaps due to wind chill temperatures well above minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Instinctively striving for a successful mating, she laid an additional three eggs which were subsequently incubated about 30 days before hatching three young. Due to unknown factor(s), all three died shortly afterwards and their remains vanished.

The next year, the female laid two eggs that hatched in a month. As the young matured, the white feathers of the two young were easily visible from the ground below. Twice, these two partially fell, partially glided to the earth below but were returned to the tower by concerned county workers. The young disappeared a few days later after learning to fly and were not been seen again.

A sizeable population of pigeons have made the courthouse tower their home for many years. Some years previously, tons of accumulated pigeon droppings and debris crashed down into the inner corridor far below causing structural damage to the building. So, as a result, prior to the owl’s presence, Brown County officials regularly paid up to $200 per month for cleaning and removal of pigeon droppings. In fact, after the pair first moved into the tower, country officials were so desirous of insuring their permanent residence, they provided raw flesh as food. The birds not only refused to eat it, but they also left the tower briefly. Subsequent to the residential occupation by the pair of Great Horned Owls, the cleanup costs have been cut by 90 per cent.

Pigeons nesting further up in the courthouse dome of the bell tower offered a convenient and ready source of food. The owls, with their sharp, grasping claws and razor-like tearing bills are uniquely equipped to capture and kill unsuspecting prey.

The term “Tiger of the Air” has been aptly applied to this courageous, powerful and bloodthirsty big bird of prey. Several times in the early predawn hours, one of the owls has been observed dive-bombing a pigeon in flight. The immediate result was a great flurry of feathers; then the hapless victim, grasped by vice-like claws in midair was carried back to the tower roost for a tasty meal.

The author remembers a wintertime personal experience with a Great Horned Owl about this time only a few miles away. I had set a number of traps with the intent of capturing red foxes for their pelts which were bringing $60 at the time. Following standard fox trapping protocol, I had carefully de-scented traps and carefully set two of them near each other in a field not far from a small pond. The double springed traps consisted of a spring on one side attached to jaws in the middle with an attached spring on the other side. I remember when checking the traps a day or so later, I found a dead jackrabbit in one of the traps and a very much alive Great Horned Owl in the other. I had no quarrel with the owl and set about to release it as harmlessly and efficiently as possible. However, due to the nature of the double springed traps which required simultaneous compression of each on each side, I had a problem. For, as I sought to release the spring with one hand on each side of the trap, the owl would attack me with wings and bill–so I had to use one hand and arm to shield myself from the owl’s attacks, which precluded compression of both sides of the trap at the same time with both my hands. After a few futile efforts to open the trap with two hands, I finally was able to use my knee to compress one spring at the same time as with the other, all the while fending off the owl’s attacks with my free arm. This done, the jaws still refused to open to release the bird, so it took a few more tries before finally coaxing the them to open by jarring the trap back and forth. Finally, the jaws opened and released the big bird–which immediately flew off. The scenario that resulted in the two trapped animals probably began when the rabbit was trapped and while flailing around trying to escape, the cruising Great Horned Owl had spied the bunny and deemed it an easy meal. However, in seeking to secure it, the owl had itself had become caught in the other trap.

Subsequently, the owl had killed the rabbit, but remained trapped itself. It is possible this was one of the Tower owls, but there is no proof one way or the other.


Owls are nocturnal; that is, they are most active during the night time. Their large disc-like eyes are capable of detecting the slightest movement in limited night light. Their wings are feathered especially to facilitate silent flight—the element of surprise to unsuspecting prey. Their diet is diverse, mainly dependent upon kinds and numbers of prey animals available. A variety of nocturnal (sometimes diurnal) animals including skunks and jackrabbits, are common owl cuisine; however, only captured living creatures are eaten, never prey already dead such as do eagles and vultures and other avian flesh eaters. Great Horned Owls, with peculiar feathery tufts at the sides of their heads which resemble horns from a distance, are among the largest of all owls and are said by some naturalists to be the most savage birds of prey. They are common throughout North America, most generally living in forested and brushy areas, canyons, cliffs, and deserts. A peculiarity of owls is that their eggs (usually two) are laid at intervals so that there may be a maturing fledgling hatched well in advance of other unhatched egg(s).

Wildlife’s Worst Enemy


Feral cats are defined as domestic (home) cats gone wild.  Domesticated cats have been and remain one of the favorite choices for pet lovers. Thus, broaching the “downside” of cats may easily raise the ire of those who treasure their favorite animal as not capable of doing anything wrong. Even reading or writing about them negatively often elicits emotional outbursts from cat lovers.

Wild or “feral” cats cast a negative downside to their domesticated house cat “siblings.”   They cause significant predation of small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Besides being a general nuisance, they can transmit such disease organisms as rabies and toxoplasmosis. Along with house pets that are allowed outside, “human-linked” feral cats are said to be the leading cause of death for birds and mammals. Their most likely prey animals are squirrels, shrews, mice, voles, rabbits, small birds, and any other likely and available “meal.”

Biology of feral cats.* Feral cats weigh up to eight pounds, are up to 36 inches long and live in the wild up to five years. Domestic or home cats may live as long as 15 years. Feral cats may live in barns of other outbuildings, alleys, sewer systems, overgrown areas, under bridges, along creeks, or other places offering shelter. They roam in an area of 1.5 square miles, their home range. For food, they feed upon human refuse, birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and human-provided food. Feral cats can potentially produce up to five litters/year, beginning generally in the spring when the increasing length of daylight triggers female estrus. Two to 10 young are born in each litter after a 65 day gestation period. The Humane Society has estimated that one pair of cats potentially can produce progeny numbering 400,000 under ideal conditions with no deaths. It is estimated that there are 60 to 88 million domesticated cats in the U.S, with an additional 60 million more belonging to the feral ranks.

A systematic review and estimate of cat caused mortality in the United States by S.R. Loss, T. Will, and P.P.Marra** suggested that cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billions of birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billions of mammals each year. Most of the damage is caused by un-owned cats, which are most likely the greatest single source of human-related mortality of U.S. mammals and birds.

Based on these figures, the enormity of this impact on natural populations of wildlife has long been underestimated. However, cat lovers insist that cats are wrongly being blamed for bird habitat loss, and animal loss actually due to chemicals used in fertilizers, and insecticides. Human impact is to blame for the real threat to birds, they say.

George Fenwick, president of ABC, is quoted*** as saying, “To maintain the integrity of our ecosystem, we have to conserve the animals that play integral roles in those ecosystems. Every time we lose another bird species or suppress their population numbers, we’re altering the very ecosystems that we depend on as humans. This issue clearly needs immediate conservation attention.”

Past policies dealing with stray cats has been to capture them, neuter them, then return them to their hunting grounds—where they continue to prey upon the same wildlife which also serves as prey for owls, eagles, and hawks.

As a biologist, the writer has frequently encountered stray or feral cats in the field. In fact, I inadverdently caught one while attempting to trap red foxes a number of years ago during a bitter winter night underneath a highway overpass in South Dakota, though I don’t remember what I did with it.   I have, presently, a neighbor who maintains a set and baited live trap for free roaming cats. He takes his “captures” several miles away and releases them—which really only moves the problem to someone else’s “backyard.” without resolving the problem. Another well intentioned neighbor keeps a supply of cat food available for free ranging, wild neighborhood cats near her carport. She even maintains an electric warming pad available for them in the wintertime. Do these latter two examples illustrate why we continue to have the feral cat problem?

My own opinion on the feral cat subject is to seek to maintain traditional natural balance in the ecosystems. Inasmuch as humans are blamed for domesticating the European and African wild cat, seven thousand years ago, we should do our best to manage them today for the purpose intended—solely that of being house pet companions. It is irresponsible to allow cats to become wild or feral. Small mammals and birds have ample predator pressure to survive under natural conditions without the added hazard of becoming prey to prowling domesticated cats gone wild.

*Hildreth, A.M., S. M. Vantassel, and S. E. Hygnstrom. 2010. Feral cats and their management. Nebraska Extension, EC1781.

**Loss, S.R., T. Will and P.P. Marra. 2013. Nature Communications, 4, No. 1396, 29 January.

***Collins, L. M., 2013. Outdoor cats kill billions of birds, mammals. Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Forgotten Campcraft Techniques—By the First Boy Scout



An old book entitled “Camp Lore and Wood Craft”* came into my possession some time ago. The copyright was 1920 and the by-line under the author’s name, Dan Beard, was the following: “Founder of the First Boy Scouts Society.” Having an ongoing interest in Boy Scouting, I shall briefly condense several intriguing subjects.


Fire-Making, The Pyropneumatic Apparatus.

At about the time of the American Revolution, the “fire ‘piston” was invented.   It consisted of a nine inch cylinder, ½ inch in diameter. It ends in a screw which screws on to the magazine and holds some fungus, the tinder. A rod of steel is attached to the plunger (piston) inside the tube. A small hole in the tube allows air to enter and the rod which has a milled head. Lard can be used to lubricate the piston when it is drawn up to the top. A small piece unscrews which allows lubrication. The procedure for starting a fire is to place a small piece of fungus in the chamber, then screw on the top of the piston.

Then it is important to hold the apparatus with two hands and place the end on a desk or table, either vertically or horizontally, and then force the piston down as rapidly as possibly. Rapid compression of the air causes the fungus to take fire. As fast as possible,

unscrew the magazine, allowing the air to rush in; Dislodge the burning fungus under suitable tinder and nurse it into a flame.


Food Preparation, (Un)Dressing Wildlife

To remove the skin/fur, get a forked branch with the forks about one inch in diameter at whatever height works for you when sitting. The lower end should be sharpened and stuck into the ground. The two forks should be sharpened with the distance between being similar to the width of the animal. Each sharpened fork is inserted into one of the animal’s heels. The first order of business is to remove the skin. Split the skin with a sharp knife from the throat to the tail. Be careful not to penetrate the body cavity with the intestines. At the time the tail base is reached, roll the skin back continuously. When finished, save the pelt. When the skin is completely detached, remove the internal organs and scent glands. Make cuts in forearms and meaty parts of the thigh and remove all the “little white things” which look like nerves. This will prevent cooked flesh from having a musky or strong cooked taste.


How to Harden Green Wood Gluts or Wedges

Old farmers are said to claim that the best wedges are made of applewood or locust wood. Seasoned wedges far outperform green ones. If applewood cannot be found, dogwood and ironwood make satisfactory substitutes. Early American Southern Native Americans used cane to tip their arrows, first slightly charring them with hot fire ashes. Gluts may also be hardened similarly. Heat just enough to force out the sap and harden the surface.


The Etiquette of the Woods—Cooking Porcupines

After a porcupine has been killed, it is best to immediately throw it into a fire to singe all of the quills off. After the quills have been singed off, roll the carcass in grass to make certain the burned quills are rubbed off the skin. Then, it may be skinned with no danger from the barbed quills. With a sharp knife, slit the skin up the middle of the belly to the throat and carefully pull the skin back and peel it off. Cut off the feet. Properly prepared porcupine is indeed a delicacy—but only if it has been boiled in two or three changes of water first. Then, it may be cooked in any way a camper desires.


Beard, D. 1920. The book of camp-lore and woodcraft. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc, Garden City, NY. 2d Ed.

Rainbow Trout–My Favorite and First and Biggest Fish



I love to fish. From my earliest memories, I have been drawn to fishing as if a giant magnet were pulling me to the nearest stream. I grew up on an Idaho farm and was given typical farm boy jobs and chores around the corral and chicken house and garden.

When I was about six, my dad had a convention to attend in Sun Valley, Idaho. He took the family along, myself and three younger siblings. I wasn’t able to find a very good place to fish—the shallow stream behind the Ketchum motel didn’t seem to even have any fish. One evening during the week, after his meetings, Dad took us to the Wood River to fish, a bit and to see the ski lift. At the time, I had Perthese disease in my right hip and had to wear a (despicable) brace–which hampered my expeditions into the unknown.

Dad and I began fishing in the river. I fished from a rocky bank about two feet high, just behind the gravel bar bordering the river. I had a hook with worms and didn’t even get a bite. Finally, I came to a likely looking “hole” under a log jam. There was some foam in the corner of the hole as the water disappeared under the logs. I nonchalantly cast my worm into the promising little hole. I was still on top of the bank, probably some five or six feet from the water.

What happened next occurred in rapid fire succession. I felt a jerk on my line and it immediately yanked. A huge fish came flying out of the water and landed on the gravel bar two feet or so below where I was standing. The big fish was “dancing” on the gravel bar below me—but I saw that the hook was no longer attached. The fish was jumping around and was very close to flopping back into the water. I immediately jumped or half fell—I don’t know which—from the bank down to the gravel bar. In so doing, I broke my fishing pole. My leg with the brace further exacerbated the situation. However, I did have the presence of mind to somehow corral the fish just as it approached the water’s edge. I yelled for dad and he came running. Together we admired the big five pound rainbow trout. Back at the motel where were staying, it was the talk among the neighbors. My first and largest trout—I have caught a number of fine fish in my life, including some cutthroat trout almost—but not quite—equaling the size of my fist fish!

Back at the farm, I didn’t get to fish every day, but I managed to fish in the town creek (we pronounced it “crick”) several times a week. Nearest access to the creek was more than one half mile away. For transportation, I rode my bike and also rode my horse, bareback. During the long summertimes, I must have fished several dozen times—and caught nothing! However , lack of success didn’t seem to dampen my enthusiasm, much. Once, a neighbor invited me to come along. All I remember about that trip is that he kept catching Rainbow Trout, jerking them way over his head each time he hooked one.

When I was about 11, I fished the lower creek and caught a number of chubb. I didn’t know at the time what kind they were, but dutifully took them home for Mom to cook, which she did. Although those were quite bony, we ate them. I at long last had something tangible to show for my many hours at the creek.

Farmer Bob and the Pocket Gopher


Gopher foto1


Hello. I’m Guy Gopher. I live in old farmer Bob’s prized alfalfa field—at least I used to live there. Let me tell you about our “war.”

My two sisters and I were born several months ago in a burrow under the ground. Mama gopher’s burrows of several dozen feet in length were located in a fertile field at the mouth of an Idaho canyon. The sloping ground allowed rain and irrigation water to quickly drain away, so we didn’t have to worry much about being flooded out of our burrows—a main worry of many of our species. Our nearby cousins living in very flat nearby fields where the farmer flood-irrigated periodically experienced awful problems, even eviction from burrows for a time, exposing them to enemy predators..

Our life was like heaven. We were one happy gopher family! Then it happened—Mama called a family meeting. “Guy, you and the girls are all grown up enough to build your own homes.” Though we probably wouldn’t be going far, we said our tearful goodbyes and each began digging our own new underground tunnels, which varied in depth between one and four feet below the surface. Feeding tunnels were close enough to the surface to have access to plant roots which became our food source.

When we accumulated too much soil from our digging, we would dig a short burrow to the surfaced, called laterals, and push out the excess dirt with the front part of our body and forefeet, forming a small “mound” of dirt on the aboveground surface. The bad part about this was that it gave our enemies instant information as to our whereabouts. So, in order to disguise our main tunnel locations as much as possible, we would plug these little surface “lateral” burrows, usually located directly adjacent to the mound–with one to several feet of compact soil.

The part of the field reserved for me was at the edge of a productive alfalfa field and raspberry patch. I loved the taste of alfalfa roots and when procuring food, would fill my cheek pouches–extra pockets outside but near my mouth–with alfalfa roots and other nearby plant parts and carry them back to my home den area, located deeper underground in a more central location, even stockpiling some on occasion.

By the time winter arrived, I had many tunnels in most every direction. We gophers hardly ever went aboveground as there were so many predator dangers there, including cats, dogs, foxes, humans, etc. However, I kept warm and cozy in my deeper burrows even during below zero temperatures above. During early wintertime when there was several feet of snow on the ground’s surface, I dug only a few additional tunnels because nearer the surface, the ground was frozen and it was downright hard to dig. Later in the winter when I did begin burrowing more, I dug the short lateral tunnels to the snow-covered surface. Then I went up to the surface and carved out tunnels under the snow into which I could push my excess dirt from my new tunnels. After the snow melted these snow tunnels, now filled with compact dirt, appeared as cores of solid soil meandering across the landscape on top of the ground.

When springtime finally did come, I found out right away that old farmer Bob both detested and hated us pocket gophers—that’s when our infamous “war” began. I never completely understood why, as I only did what my instincts told me to do. I admit that I probably damaged a few of his ‘ol plants—but, he would never have probably missed them. Obviously, that was not the mindset of farmer Bob! First, he tried to drown me when he watered his alfalfa plants. He had found a recent surface mound and dug down through the plugged access tunnel until he came to my main burrow. Soon, a wave of irrigation water rushed towards me. I can swim when I have to–but it certainly is not my favorite sport! As the water level in my main tunnel rose rapidly, I first did my best to build a dam to stop the water, Then I swam to the part of my burrow which was higher in elevation than the water source and curled up and shivered awhile and slept until I felt better and drier.

A few days later after the water was dried out, I made the mistake or digging new surface lateral tunnels to deposit excess soil into mounds on the surface. That did it! Soon I felt the ponderous vibrations of a heavy vehicle overhead. I heard a shovel, digging into my main tunnel. Then, I began smelling something yukky–what I later was told was automobile exhaust—it made my head ache, so I immediately blocked my side of the tunnel with extra dirt I was pushing.


Farmer Bob must have gotten awfully frustrated, because I kept pushing up soil to make mounds on the surface. Later, I smelled a new scent, later identified as oats and corn.

They were poison, but I didn’t know it. I probably would have helped myself to them, but an uninvited meadow mouse, accidentally roaming through my burrows, ate all of the grain before I found it and lay dead in the bottom of the burrow. I began to get the idea that someone up there didn’t like me!

A few days later, I found some strange smelling metal object in my runways. I later found they were called “traps.” By now, I was becoming very cautious. As I quietly investigated the strange object, I heard a “click” as the trap tripped. It’s jaws grabbed a jawful of my fur and pinched me real proper, but I was able to free myself. That really scared me, so I was VERY careful from then on. Later, I hear the farmer say as he checked his traps, “That pesky gopher is smarter than I am.” I felt real proud of myself!

From then on, each time I made a mound, even discretely, there would be a metal traps in each direction down the main tunnel. I was wise to the traps, though, even though some were set very cleverly. I would carefully trip each one and pack dirt around them so they were very difficult to remove from above. Every day as Farmer would come to check his traps, I would hear him say something like, “Foiled again!”

With so many hazards to look out for, I finally told myself, “Guy, it time to be discrete and retreat.” So I tunneled under the nearby fence out of the nearby berry patch into the alfalfa field and begin constructing new tunnels. I noticed that Farmer Bob continued to check his dreaded traps inside the raspberry patch for an entire week—I smirked to myself.

My most dramatic near-encounter with old Farmer bob occurred the very next spring. I had moved back to the raspberry patch burrows. By now, I figured that I knew all of his sneaky, tricks. I even carefully hid my mounds of extra dirt among the nearby weeds bordering the field. Well, I was so wrong! The third day after I had concealed several mounds, the dreaded metal traps again appeared in my tunnels. While I was scurrying about trying to cover them up, I came a across a curious circular band of metal with a “rock” fastened to one side. After I had finished tripping and covering the traps, the round object was still stuck in my burrow floor. The very next time I dug a lateral tunnel to get rid of extra dirt, I made sure that I pushed the round object out with the excess soil.

Then an extraordinary thing happened!  Sure enough, Farmer had found the new mound of soil and was fussing around trying to figure out how to shoot something called “tear gas” (whatever that is) into my tunnels, when he must have spotted the circular metal object.

“Gazooks,” I heard him yell, “Here it is—my grandmother’s wedding ring, the one I lost 50 years ago when I was a little kid picking peas in her garden. That pesky gopher found it.”  I heard him shout all the way to the house as crashed headlong through row after row of his prized bushes.

Well, that’s the end of my story, sort of, that is.  Today I am sitting in a tunnel under my very own berry patch, planted especially for me by my good friend and neighbor, farmer Bob, right next to his own patch. He even planted some delicious veggies and alfalfa alongside to vary my diet.

“You see, I’m what you might call one very lucky GUY!”

Postscript – Have you ever seen a live pocket gopher?

A genus found in the western U.S. is called Thomomys. A widespread species of Thomomys is the  Northern Pocket Gopher, Thomomys talpoides, that inhabits parts of most of the western United States as well as several southwestern Canadian provinces. There are 58 named T. t. subspecies. Coloration is variable depending on subspecies, from yellowish brown to grayish brown, and are normally the size of a large mouse. Pocket gophers are fossorial mammals and have poor eyesight, but their short hairless tails are sensitive to backwards movements in the tunnel. Large whiskers are sensitive and also assist in movement, even in the darkest of tunnels. Forefeet have long claws. Claws and teeth are used in digging burrows. Burrows consist of a main tunnel with side branches which originate from the main tunnel. Gophers are herbivorous and often construct one nest with food caches containing shrubs, grasses, forbs and tree roots.  At times they may feed aboveground on surface vegetation. Nests average four to 18 inches below the surface. Three to four (average) young are born from March to June and there are usually only one litters/year, possibly two in the south portions of their range. The gestation period is about 20 days. Sexual maturity is reached at one year.




The Golden Squirrel Looks Like…. But is Not…… a Chipmunk

goldensqHave you ever been hiking in the summertime and suddenly seen a flash of gold that disappears almost in thin air? If so, it’s likely that you have come across a ground squirrel, a golden-mantled ground squirrel, in fact. Were you able to see where the flash disappeared to? Unless you are especially observant, you may not have noticed an partially hidden opening to an underground burrow. Ground squirrels get their names from where they live—underground!

If you have ever heard the phrase “Mother Earth,” it certainly applies to many animals, as earth gives them underground shelter and safety from their predator enemies and provides soil without which there would be no food nor aboveground cover. Some animals dig their own burrows, some take over deserted ones, and some cohabitate, invited or not.   Some common animals directly utilizing tunnels beneath the surface include mammals: voles (meadow mice), groundhogs, marmots (also known as rockchucks), badgers, beavers, weasels, moles, chipmunks, prairie dogs, gophers; Birds: burrowing owls; amphibians: crayfish or crawdads; Reptiles: snakes.           .

Ground squirrels are fairly common in western North America. The common ground squirrel genus formerly known as Spermophilus has recently been divided into eight (8) genera, one of which is called Callospermophilus,* to which the golden mantled ground squirrels belong. There are three recognized species, Callospermophilus lateralis with 13 subspecies, C. madrensis, and C. saturatus with one subspecies, each. The name Callospermophilus is derived as follows: kallos from Greek meaning beauty, spermatos for seed, and phileo for love. All ground squirrels are true hibernators and disappear in the fall until March or April. They live in nests located in underground burrows and may store food for consumption as hibernation ends in the springtime.

The golden mantled ground squirrel Spermophilus lateralis is probably the easiest of all ground squirrels to identify.   It has a white stripe running from its hind quarters to its front quarters bordered by a black stripe. The white stripe does not continue across the side of the face as do chipmunk stripes. This squirrel is found in 11 of the westernmost U.S. states and extends into Alberta, Canada, but not into Mexico.

Molly Bartels and Doug Thompson** wrote a nice summary of the golden mantled ground squirrel, its habits, habitat, reproduction, range and distribution, etc.

Breeding season begins shortly after emergence from hibernation in the spring, and two to eight young are usually born in July after an average gestation period of 30 days. They may live up to five years in captivity and seven or more in natural habitats.

Golden squirrels prefer sunny habitats and inhabit forested or sparsely brushy territory, recently burned forests and sometimes even in sagebrush or meadows.   They are usually silent, but can make several kinds of calls. These squirrels are omnivores, that is, they will consume both flesh and plants. Normal food includes herbaceous plants and pine nuts. When eating, these squirrels will customarily sit on their haunches and manipulate food with their forefeet, a fun photographing opportunity. In the fall, these squirrels store fat for survival during long winter hibernations. Food and even bedding materials may be packed into their cheeks pouches for transport to their nests. Natural enemy predators include badgers, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, weasels and hawks. They are inadverdant hosts to several kinds of parasites including fleas, ticks, sandflies, protozoans and bacteria.

* Helgen, K.M., K.M. Cole, L.E. Helgen and D.E. Wilson. 2009. Journal of Mammalogy, 90(2):270-305.                                                                                                                                                                                        ** Mammalian Species (American Society of Mammalogists publication), 1993, No. 440.