Kristen Lindquist: Meditations on flying squirrels

Sat, 12/08/2012 - 10:45pm

My husband had a pet flying squirrel when he was younger. He bought it for $30 from an old lady in his neighborhood who trafficked in the sales of wild animals. She also sold raccoons, mice, rats, snakes, and, oddly, coatimundis, which are not by any means native Maine animals. He kept the flying squirrel in a Habitrail hamster cage and fed it bird seed. He doesn’t remember its name, but he swears it wasn’t Rocky. Fortunately for the squirrel, it escaped after a few weeks, back to the wild. As my husband says, “It’s the best thing that could have happened to it.”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a friend took his six-year-old grandson out to clean out the bluebird boxes along the edges of his farm fields. In one box they found a red squirrel, which his grandson deemed “adorable,” much to my friend’s disgust. When they opened another, out popped a pair of flying squirrels. The squirrels leaped into a nearby tree, climbed to the top, and — much to the delight of both the child and my friend — glided to a tree a little farther away. That was easily the highlight of the outing, topping last year’s mouse that leapt from the bird house to land on my friend’s shoulder.

A flying squirrel’s about half the size of a red squirrel in weight, keeping itself relatively light so as to be buoyant in the air. Of course, it doesn’t really fly. It glides on flaps of furry skin called pelagium that open up when it spreads out its front and back paws. Think about how far your fat backyard gray squirrel can jump from one tree limb to the next without this anatomical assistance. Now imagine the lighter, more agile flying squirrel with its pelagium spread wide — it can glide a few hundred feet on a good leap.

But it’s “flight” abilities are just a bonus. We humans are suckers for little creatures with big eyes. (Witness the slow loris craze on YouTube, or any cartoon animal portrayed in a Disney movie.) So even though we’re generally annoyed by rodents, the flying squirrel seems to get dispensation because it’s so darn cute, scientifically speaking, of course. It’s all in the eyes; the genus name for flying squirrel, Glaucomys seems to derive from Greek for “gray- or bright-eyed mouse.” Those big eyes are perfect for a strictly nocturnal animal. If we saw more of this actually quite common denizen of the Maine woods, there might be more of them kept (illegally) as pets, as has happened with the poor slow lorises of the world. Instead, this creature of the night remains mysterious to most of us unless you startle one in a bird box, come across one the cat dragged in, or, as happened on a winter ecology field trip I once attended, inadvertently knock on a nesting tree.

Or find them living in your attic. A friend recently told me the horror story of how the space over his family room was infested by a family of flying squirrels. Squirrels of any kind living in one’s house are bad news. I know of buildings that have burned down because squirrels gnawed on the wiring, causing a short circuit. They’re messy, they scamper, they squeak. They chew on insulation and even the house itself. But according to my friend, the flying squirrel apparently comes with its own nightmarish quality: it screams. I’ve been searching the Internet and have yet to find a recording of a flying squirrel that matches the sound he tried to reproduce for me. But he saw them coming and going; those repetitive, high-pitched shrieks couldn’t have been any other animal.

What’s actually more interesting than the thought of screaming squirrels is how my friend got rid of them after weeks of aural torment. One day he stood in the room right under what he assumed was their nest and shouted and yelled like a madman while stomping around the room. Perhaps he even was a little mad, driven crazy by squirrels. The squirrels fled the attic and never returned.

This time of year, flying squirrels, which do not hibernate, stay warm by huddling together in hollow trees (and bird boxes) in nests of “old man’s beard” and other lichens and shredded bark. (The lichen also commonly serves as a food source.) While studying how various animals survive the winter, wildlife biologist Bernd Heinrich recounts in his book WINTER WORLD whacking on a tree that he knew, from studying tracks in the snow, was home to several flying squirrels. After they popped out, one by one, he realized that a pile of ten flying squirrels was crowded into that one hole!

This activity is not recommended as a way to see a flying squirrel; disturbing any animal in the winter can easily compromise its survival by forcing it to expend energy that it may need to live through the next cold 24 hours. Rather than knocking on trees, keeping an eye on a birdfeeder at night is probably the best way to see this charismatic but elusive rodent. Just remember to keep the cat inside. I think I’ve seen more cat-killed flying squirrels than live ones. Owls, foxes, pine martens, and even lynx also find them tasty prey. But least it’s no longer legal to buy one from the wacky old lady down the street.


Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who works for Coastal Mountains Land Trust in her hometown of Camden.


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