Nature Notes: Flying squirrels making their presence felt, mostly at night

We hardly ever see flying squirrels, because they’re most active at night. But Southern Flying Squirrels are quite common in Connecticut. (Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Northeast Region)
We hardly ever see flying squirrels, because they’re most active at night. But Southern Flying Squirrels are quite common in Connecticut. (Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Northeast Region)

My cat has hauled many birds and beasts into our house, but this time she outdid herself, dragging a live flying squirrel into our bedroom and releasing it.

Wow. Did that cause a minor ruckus.

Grabbing the barking dog and my guilty feline, who had a large Cheshire cat grin on her face, I put them both downstairs, out of harm’s way.

Then, with broom in hand (I’m a veteran of these skirmishes), I chased the flying squirrel out from underneath our bed, down the hallway and into my office. None of this was by design, but the squirrel scampered that way, and I ran after it.

When we both reached my office, the flying squirrel and I paused and looked at each other. With those big bug eyes, designed for night vision, the little guy seemed to be asking me “Are you a friend or foe?” while I wondered how in the heck was I going to catch this speeding bullet?

Thankfully, a light bulb moment came to me: Open the window and give the flying squirrel an escape hatch.

Once I did that, bingo. The squirrel took its cue and “flew,” or took a flying leap and glided out the window, onto the roof and into a tree. It was gone in a nanosecond, I hope to live for many more days.

Laughing out loud, I sat there for a moment, dazzled by the animal’s agility.

How do these incredibly cute animals “fly” or glide?

Flying squirrels have an extra fold of skin or gliding membrane that extends from their front wrists to their rear ankles, enabling them glide up to 250 feet. The rudder is their tail.

“As a flying squirrel approaches its landing, the squirrel flips its tail up and holds its body back to slow the glide down, giving the squirrel ample time to position its feet for grasping the tree trunk,” a handout explains from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division.

Chris Vonn, wildlife biologist from the same department, said there are two kinds of flying squirrels in North America.

The southern flying squirrel is common throughout Connecticut and the eastern half of the United States, living in cavities in beech-maple, oak-hickory and poplar forests, while northern flying squirrels are mostly found in Canada and southeastern Alaska, thriving in higher elevations in spruce and cedar forests.

High mortality

Both species are active at night — that’s why most of us have never seen a flying squirrel — and eat such things as seeds, nuts, berries, blossoms, lichens, insects, bird eggs and nestlings, Vonn said.

As quick as they are, however, flying squirrels have a high mortality rate, Vonn said, living one to five years in the wild. They are hunted by owls, hawks, and fishers in the trees, and bobcats, fox, raccoons and weasels on the ground.

How do flying squirrels evade predators? First, they have excellent eyesight. With eyes mounted on the sides of their head, they can almost see a full 360 degrees.

Second, they are nimble and fast; and third, when flying squirrels get in a jam, they freeze on the undersides of tree limbs, making themselves almost invisible.

Finally, flying squirrels are prolific breeders, Vonn said, reproducing two to three young between February and March and four to five young between May and July.

When flying squirrels mate, the male soon departs, leaving the female to do all the rearing. Thus, “females are very territorial, occupying a range of about one acre,” wrote Alex Atwood for the Animal Diversity web. “And if there are any territorial disputes, the female occupying the home range will respond aggressively by staring (at the trespasser), stamping her feet, lunging, jumping on, or even smacking the other female in the face.”

Again, I openly laugh. This is an amazing animal. Enjoy.

Bill Hobbs is a resident of Stonington and a lifelong wildlife enthusiast. For comments, he can be reached at whobbs246@gmail.com

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