Pennsylvania Game News - April 2020 - 10

19 CENTURY FISHER STORY
TH

In 1844, Spencer F. Baird acquired a fisher from
a man who had captured it on Peter's Mountain
north of Harrisburg. The man was exhibiting it in
Dauphin County. Then called "Pennant's marten,"
Baird eventually would purchase for $15 the fisher
and its cage. The animal would go on to become
the model for John J. Audubon's fisher in The
Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
Audubon reported upstate New York hunters
and farmers occasionally referred to Pennant's
marten as a "black fox."
These black foxes - sometimes also called
fisher cats - were acquired "... by cutting down
hollow trees, in which they were concealed, and
to which their tracks on the snow directed the
hunters," Audubon wrote in his three-volume
mammals set. He seemed to understand why it
was called a black fox, writing: "The head of this
species bears a stronger resemblance to that of a
dog than to the head of a cat."
Although $15 might not seem like much of an
investment today, an inflation calculator projected
the fisher's cost at about $400 today.
In describing the fisher to Audubon in a March
14, 1844 letter, Baird described it as "... without
exception the most unmitigated savage beast I
ever saw. It goes through all the motions of a mad
cat, particularly when a dog comes near, spitting,
hissing, growling, etc."
Upon accepting the Dauphin County fisher,
Audubon found similar behavior.
"We kept this individual alive for some days,
feeding it on raw meat, pieces of chicken, and
now and then a bird," Audubon reported in his
Quadrupeds' fisher profile. "It was voracious, and
very spiteful, growling snarling and spitting when
approached, but it did not appear to suffer much
uneasiness from being held in captivity, as, like
many other predacious quadrupeds it grew fat,
being better supplied with food than when it had
been obliged to cater for itself in the woods."
Audubon went on to report that fishers were
at best only occasionally seen in eastern states in
the early 1800s.
"It has since become still more rare, and in
places where it was then known, scarcely any
vestige of the knowledge of its former existence
can now be traced," Audubon wrote.
If Audubon's assessment was correct,
Pennsylvania today likely has more fishers than any other time over the past
10

two centuries. But fishers are a species that isn't
easily observed, although they do leave tracks in
the snow.
Baird, a gifted young naturalist in the 1840s,
would go on to become the first curator of the
Smithsonian Institute in 1850.
Audubon would die a year later and would
never see all three volumes of his mammal series
published.
Inventorying Pennsylvania's and North America's wildlife was considered a principal responsibility of those who aimed to understand wildlife and
measure its range and abundance in the 1800s.
That wildlife began to dwindle from unregulated
taking and loss of habitat heightened the meaningfulness of their work. And as some species
became rarer, there was increased interest to
collect what specimens remained for zoos and
museum collections.
A lack of understanding about how to manage
wildlife professionally, next to no interest in
government to conserve wildlife, and the profits
associated with selling wildlife contributed greatly
to local, regional and national wildlife population
collapses.
The paintings and words of Alexander Wilson
and Audubon surely stemmed that tide, helping
more Americans see wildlife's majesty. An interest
in and concern for wild birds among
Americans can be traced back to
their work.



Pennsylvania Game News - April 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Pennsylvania Game News - April 2020

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Pennsylvania Game News - April 2020 - Cover3
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