Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It's a bird! It's a plane! Nope, it's a FLYING SQUIRREL!

I love when stuff like this happens!

Unexpected run-ins with wild animals that leave both parties unharmed and are both a little better off! In this case, I was just standing less than 2 feet from a flying squirrel on my porch, and he was having a nice night-time snack of bird seed.

Let me back up.

Mady and I:

...are roommates. We became friends at FLCC where we both attended for the past two years. We both transferred to SUNY Cobleskill together for the Wildlife Management degree this year, and are renting a house together on 8 acres of land in Schoharie, NY. It's been really fun so far, it's nice to live with someone who shares many of the same interests and hobbies, and who will talk to the birds with me at the bird feeders :) That picture above is from Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina where we took Spring Break in 2012 (we're nerds, we know). 

We love wildlife, love to see it, handle it (when appropriate...), photograph it, and study it. We have bird feeders set up in the yard, a bird house, a squirrel house, suet feeder, and an ear of corn on a spike stuck to the tree so the squirrels can't carry it off :) So we've been doing a lot of bird watching the past couple months we've been here. And squirrel watching, mainly reds and grays during the day.

BUT, one night we heard something outside in the backyard. It was a very high pitched "tsee- tseeeeee", not exactly chirping. It was dark out, but we got flash lights out and shined them on the bird feeder closest to the house and saw this:

A flying squirrel on the bird feeder!
So almost any given night since then, we shine the flashlights out there just after dark, and there they are. The other night Mady saw 4 at once on the tree and around the feeder! They are such a cool little critter to have around. I've heard it said that they are the most common squirrel in NY. Not sure if that's absolutely true, but there are MUCH more of them around than many people think. They're just nocturnal, so many people don't see them as often as the diurnal squirrels.

Well this evening, I ran out to the grocery store and when I came back, I walked up the steps on the front porch (porch light was on mind you) and the small bird feeder there was swinging wildly as if it was really windy...or something just jumped off of it. So I took 2 more steps up onto the platform and saw this little guy hanging onto the support!

I could not believe what I was seeing, they're usually so skittish and secretive, being creatures of the night. But this guy was in full light of the porch light, and allowed me to get very close. It was awesome. I called Mady on the phone, from the porch, and whispered to her to come to the window to see it, which she did and then it climbed into a nook and disappeared.

I came inside and told Mady my whole story (that was about 45 seconds long) and put away the groceries, and took another peek out the door to see if it came back.

Can you see him in this picture?
That's obviously the bird feeder there with the umbrella roof, and I'm standing in the doorway, and my camera is not zoomed in at all.

I took a step out onto the porch, moving slowly and quietly and was able to snap the following pictures:

Can we all agree that this little critter is pretty darn cute?

There are 5 brief things I want to mention about flying squirrels, making this post somewhat educational :)

  1. Eyes: Flying squirrels have large eyes, comparatively to the size of their head. This is because they are nocturnal, and rely on those eyes to bring in as much light as possible so they can see in the dark.
  2. Whiskers: Many cavity-dwelling and/or nocturnal animals have long whiskers. Often mammals who live in holes will have whiskers as wide as their body, and at the base of the whisker where it connects to the body, is a bundle of nerves called the vibrissae. These nerves are VERY sensitive, and they need to be. The head of these animals (and ours too) is narrower than the rest of the body. And if we were going head first into a hole, our head could likely fit into a smaller one than the rest of the body, but then we might get stuck once we're shoulder or hip deep. SO, these wide whiskers help to tell the squirrel: if the tips of your whiskers are touching, your big butt won't fit through. Also, they use them to feel around when feeding and navigating at night.
  3. Petagium: This is probably a new word for some people reading. This refers to the flap of skin between the wrist and ankle that extends out with the squirrel is "flying". It's that dark line of fur you see in the pictures. Imagine tying a sheet to your ankle and wrist, then extending your leg and arm to make the sheet taut. This is your petagium :)
  4. Flying: Now that I've said #3, let's be clear: flying squirrels do not truly fly. There's only one flying mammal in the United States, and it ain't the flying squirrel. They glide, by relying on the large surface area of the extending petagium to keep them aloft as they leap from tree to tree. I've had the joy of watching this several times, and let me tell you: it NEVER gets old. Next time you're in the woods, and you see a dead snag, bang on it a few times and keep your eyes up. You may see a flying squirrel come out!
  5. Species: There are 2 species of flying squirrel in the United States, and in NY for that matter: the Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) and the Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans). Often, being in NY, I think of "southern" as below me on the map. Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas...etc. But in this case, the guides are referring to Southern North America. Rougly, the midpoint of North America is the border between Canada and the US. This is where the ranges of the G. sabrinus and G. volans overlap. And guess what, it's really hard to tell them apart. The only way I know how to, and if there are others- please share!, is you have to be handling the animal. You blow gently into the fur on the belly, and look for the color of the base of the fur. Both species have a white/creamy/buff underside, but  dark gray base belongs to the Northern, and a white base belongs to the Southern. So, in this case I can't tell which species I have living here. I could have both actually!
I LOVE these animals- such unique adaptations, and they're hard to find, unless you know what you're doing (apparently just putting out bird feeders works). I've written a few other entries about flying squirrels, including when I got to handle them last winter!

And finally, my fellow blogger and past professor, John at Backyard Beasts JUST wrote an entry about flying squirrels he caught on his camera trap! It's very cool, so please check that out at: Flying squirrel in action!

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  1. Your close-up photos are superb, he looks good enough to cuddle,do they grow larger? You live in a great place, and the wildlife you love so much right at your very own backdoor. I have entered my email, thanks for the linkup. Cheers from Jean

    1. So Jean, I'm trying to find a small mammal to compare our flying squirrels to, that you'd know in New Zealand, and I'm discovering you don't have any native land mammals!!! How crazy is that! Just marine mammals and bats. So to answer your question, no they don't get any larger. This squirrel was kind of a chub, but his structure won't grow.

  2. Nice encounter and I am jealous of your photos. Are you thinking of camera trapping them?

    1. Are you BATCYJ??? I would love to camera trap them. If I had at least 1 reliable working camera.


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