While out in the cool dark woods capturing Northern Saw-whet Owls a while back, we had an encounter with one of our more interesting animals. And one that is surprisingly common, although relatively few people have seen one.
If you are out in the woods at night, and very quiet, there are many animals to be heard. Quiet shuffling in the leaf litter gives away the little guys, like White-footed Mice, while louder clumsier shuffling might be a Virginia Opossum. Sometimes bloodcurdling screeches come from spatting raccoons.
But listen very quietly and you might hear a distinctive scrabbling of tiny feet on tree bark, coupled with chitters nearly inaudible to our ears. If you do hear this stuff, its likely to be foraging Southern Flying Squirrels, and that's what we encountered on our owl expedition. We heard the feet on bark, lit the tree up with the flashlight and there was the little guy, big eyes aglow. Like a circus trapeze artist, it put on quite a show for the group, racing high into the tree, darting from limb to limb with impossible speed and grace, and culminated his act with an impressive glide from the tree's summit out into the gloom beyond our pool of light.
These fuzzy little wack-jobs are something else. It's like someone took a quadripedal dwarf, covered him in fur, amped him up on Powershot and Espresso, applied superglue to the paws, then tied a bottle-rocket to his tail.
Off they go, roaring about the timber like maniacs. Hardly still for a second, and if multiple units are present short-lived battles are sure to ensue as Alphas and wanna-be Alphas duel for first place. The speed and sureness with which flying squirrels race about is nothing short of incredible, and what do they have to worry about? Falling? Not. A quick stretch of the appendages flaps open the patagial membranes, and you've got instant mammalian hang glider. They have been documented soaring for the length of a football field, and can even shift direction as they soar along.
No dummies, when a flying squirrel uses that beaverlike rudder of a tail to stall its airspeed and alight on a tree trunk, it promptly runs around to the other side. Good strategy and one no doubt learned the hard way as squirrels were sacrificed along the evolutionary trail to screech-owls who followed their flight plans.
Bob Placier, one of the owl banders, sent me a note reporting that a flying squirrel was recently caught in one of their nets. He reports that it was high-strung in the extreme, chittering and biting as they attempted extrication and only ensnaring itself even more. Eventually, they had to cut it free, thus liberating the big-eyed madman but essentially destroying the net in the process. Southern Flying Squirrel - 1. Owl Banders - 0.
If you've got decent-sized trees, even in suburbia, you've likely got flying squirrels. Wanna lure 'em in and watch the show? Slather Jiffy peanut butter up on a tree trunk, about as high as you can reach. Use the crunchy varieties; these are discerning little beasts and you don't want to make them mad.
I took the shots above at a friend's suburban feeding station, and it was a show, let me tell you that. Up to seven El Locos were in the tree at once, squeaking, chasing, combating, gliding, and grabbing Jiffy's finest until displaced by another beast, and every one of those scenarios generally took place in about three seconds per squirrel. They burn the calories, these boys.
But what a show.