I had a rare treat last night, when a friend, Roman Mast, invited me to see an incredible display of southern flying squirrels at his property in north-central Ohio. Roman is into birds, and puts out feeders for the feathered crowd. It didn't take him long, some years back, to realize that come nightfall an army of flying squirrels would descend upon his feeders.
At times, ten or more animals would be on one tree trunk in the vicinity of the feeders, and a glance into the towering white pines would reveal many others darting about. A hallmark of a flying squirrel is its astonishing ability to glide. A loose flap of skin - the patagium - stretches between fore and hind legs, and when the squirrel launches into space, it flares it legs and becomes a furry wingsuit. Glides in excess of 300 feet are possible, and the squirrel can adeptly jig and jag to avoid limbs and trees. When it's ready to alight, it flips its flat wide tail up vertically, which acts as an airbrake and serves to force its body down and head up. This positions the animal for a graceful landing, and oftentimes upon alighting, it'll race around to the other side of the tree. This may be a behavior designed to thwart owls that might be on their heels.