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Flying squirrels are all over, but hard to spot
Squirrels are among our most recognizable mammals. They are often the most common mammal in many urban parks and residential areas. And state and national parks almost always have large numbers of them, especially around campsites and picnic areas.?
They can become real pests once they get used to the many tasty handouts humans are prone to offer them.
But one type of squirrel rarely becomes a pest to humans. In fact, few humans have ever seen a flying squirrel outside a zoo or pet store. Fewer yet would believe that these tiny squirrels are extremely common across many areas of North America.
The reason few people ever lay eyes on them is because they are almost completely nocturnal in nature. They are most active at night or during low-light conditions. Otherwise they are very similar in some ways to their larger gray squirrel cousins. They forage for seeds and nuts which they either eat or store for the coming winter.
There are actually 38 known species of flying squirrels in the world, but North America has only two. And those are so similar that many experts claim they actually represent slightly different races of a single species. Our flying squirrels are light gray on the upper body and white underneath. They rarely exceed 12 inches in length or weigh more than eight ounces.?
They are tiny, exceedingly soft fur balls of energy. And their ¡°over-sized¡± eyes and cute little nose are their chief facial characteristics.?
Flying squirrels can actually fly, sort of. But unlike the flapping wings of a bird their flight is unpowered. They glide from one tree to another or from a tree to the ground.?
Nature has provided them with soft folds of fur-covered skin between their front and hind legs. When they jump from a tree all four legs are extended outward. The folds of skin catch the air. And their tail acts like a rudder, guiding them with unfailing accuracy to the spot they wish to land.
Their landings are rarely rough-and-tumble situations. They time their flights almost perfectly. And just before landing they suddenly erect their tails straight up. This causes their heads to rise and all four feet to hit the landing spot at the same time. The legs then act like tiny shock absorbers, cushioning the impact.
For baby flying squirrels, learning how to fly is one of the real trials of life. The mother squirrel, using her mouth, gently grasps the baby by the nape of the neck. Then, she unceremoniously tosses it out of the nest. But that's all right, because its first instinct is to spread its legs wide. The loose skin unfolds, catches air, and it falls gently to the ground or a nearby tree as if lowered by a parachute.
Home for a flying squirrel can be almost any available hollow cavity. The only requirement is that it be elevated. A small hole high in a hollow tree is most desirable. But in areas with high populations of flying squirrels, any available cavity is often pressed into service.
When I was a youngster, I often visited a local park. Boy scouts had earlier placed some coffee cans on some of the trees for visitors to deposit their cigarette butts in, and one day I noticed one of those cans was totally full of leaves, trash and forest litter.?
When I investigated further, I was greeted by an irritated mother flying squirrel rushing out of the can and up the tree. She was in the process of raising her brood in that can, and didn't appreciate my disturbing her one bit. And I didn't, after that first introduction.
That was just the first of many encounters I have been fortunate enough to have with these beautiful little residents of our outdoor world. In college at WVU, I did a research paper on the flying squirrels living in Cooper¨ªs Rock State Forest. There were literally hundreds of them (probably many thousands if I had covered more than a two acre research plot), and I spent many nights and weekend days and nights on that project.
Well, I wrote the paper, and the professor was not amused, to say the least. He gave me a failing grade. And when I inquired as to why he told me in his 20 plus years he had not seen a single flying squirrel on that mountain. So I invited him to come with me one evening, any evening, of his choice. We went the following Saturday.
We got there, and the squirrels showed up right on time. Our flashlights found one flying squirrel after another. Since we were sitting on a bench, our vision was somewhat limited, but he still saw and counted around 18 of those soft, furry critters.?
And to add justice to my complaint, the last one we saw landed in the fallen leaves less than two feet from his right foot. And I did get an A on that paper, and also for Wildlife Management 212 as well.
There is another interesting fact that I am still in awe of. The first few squirrels I handled bit or tried to bite me. And they hurt when biting, too. But one evening while I was conducting surveillance on an area of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge a flying squirrel landed on my chest.
Rather than do something sudden, I instead reached up and petted that critter. And that little squirrel laid there and let me pet it for a full five minutes before it climbed down and went on its way. What a thrill!
Since that encounter I have had opportunities to ¡°pet¡± several other flying squirrels that landed near me on trees or on the ground. Only one ran away, while the others allowed me to pet them for at least several soft strokes.?
It is funny that I have never attempted to make a pet out of one. In my younger years, I had a lot of wild animals and birds as pets. But while I suspected that flying squirrels might make good pets, I simply never tried to cage them.?
And now in my ¡°older¡± years I am so glad I did not try. They deserve to stay wild and free.
Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger¡¯s Outdoors Columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org