ELY, MINN. – Those of us who are in the business of trying to attract birds to our backyards by filling feeders with an assortment of seeds are familiar with watching the contents of those differently-shaped tubes, cubes and trays disappear.
But when a feeder turns up empty of its contents in the first light of dawn after being full at sunset the night prior, one can deduce there’s a high probability that the pilferer of seeds was likely a furry rather than a feathered friend.
Such overnight guests in Mid-Iowa most likely would be raccoons or opossums, which are primarily nocturnal creatures. In the Superior National Forest of northeast Minnesota where our cabin is located, neither of those mammals has made much of an inroad, yet, so a most likely culprit could be a black bear.
One late-night seed-eating creature found in both locations, however, is as stealthy as a fox but as seemingly gentle as a fawn. I’m talking about the shy and reclusive flying squirrel.
Unlike their name indicates, however, flying squirrels don’t actually fly; rather, they glide.
“In part, this is due to a large flap of skin (patagium) attached to its front and hind legs and sides of its body,” writes naturalist Stan Tekiela. “To glide, a flying squirrel will climb to the top of a tree and launch itself, extending its four legs outward and stretching the patagium to make a flat, wing-like airfoil. Its flat tail adds some additional lift and acts like a rudder to help maneuver objects while gliding. … To create an air brake for a soft landing, the squirrel will quickly lift its head and tuck its tail between its hind legs.”
Larry Dau, a Boone County resident who also owns a cabin in northwest Wisconsin, has been observing and photographing flying squirrels for many years.
“I have seen them glide in from more than 100 feet and even pick up altitude at the end of their glide,” Dau said.
There are two species of flying squirrels – the northern and southern – and while the squirrels that are frequent visitors to our cabin and Dau’s are the northern species, those living in Iowa are the southern species, said Jim Pease, emeritus associate professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University. Their ranges do, however, ranges overlap in many areas of the country, Dau said.
“The northern is known for being in the boreal forest,” he said. “In Iowa, they would normally be in the oak-hickory woods.
The two species of flying squirrels vary in length and weight, with the northern being slightly bigger at around 9 to 10 inches in total length and weighing about 3 to 4 ounces while the southern tends to be around 7 to 8 inches long and weigh roughly 2 to 3 ounces. Both species are active year-round and will often build a nest in an abandoned woodpecker cavity to raise their young. Both species also are omnivores, feeding on insects, seeds, nuts, catkins, eggs, mice, birds, mushrooms and other fungi.
“At the cabin, we have a mixed conifer and deciduous forest,” Dau said. “So we have lots of acorns and pinecones for them to feed on. At my feeders they come in for peanuts and sunflower seeds.”
No matter where you live, the chances of seeing them are slim.
“Rarely do they come out in daylight,” Dau said.
The best chance to possibly see one is to go outside after dusk and to listen for the soft bird-like calls of the adults, the high-pitched squeaks of the young or the sound of something scrambling on the bark. Shining a flashlight in the direction of the sounds might reveal a small brown creature with bulging eyes and a long tail. Often, they will freeze at the presence of light and you can get a good look.
“They move very fast,” Dau said. “Guests at the cabin are fascinated by their flights, quick movements and antics. They will watch them for an hour or two.”
Once you’ve seen a flying squirrel, it’s easy to understand why.
Watch them fly … or glide
To see video clips of flying squirrels, visit Larry Dau’s website: https://larryd.smugmug.com/Nature/Northern-Flying-Squirrels-Fall/
Todd Burras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.