Flying Squirrels

(This column was first published in the September 11, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    What do you consider the most attractive wild mammal in America? (I have inserted the word "wild" in that inquiry in order to head off most -- but perhaps not all -- responses like "My current girlfriend.")

    There are many handsome animals from which to choose. Some candidates that come to mind are deer, antelope, mountain lion, lynx and wolf among the larger animals and chipmunk, weasel (especially in its ermine pelage), cottontail, and deer mouse among the small. Some of you aquatic types might even consider one of the dolphins or the killer whale.

    My vote goes to none of those. Without hesitation I choose the flying squirrel.

    You probably didn't even consider that species because you've never seen one. Before last month I had seen only one in the wild, which is quite extraordinary, because flying squirrels are probably more common here than, for example, red squirrels.

    My first wild flying squirrel sighting was when a friend from England and I were resting on an Adirondack trail. Suddenly one sailed down from the canopy to light on a tree right in front of us. It scurried back up into the foliage, leaving us shocked but delighted.

    Still earlier, however, a friend had a pair of these little animals as pets and that is when I came to appreciate them. They were docile little beasts, not really tame but, if I was careful, one would nestle into one of my hands while I stroked its soft fur with the other, much as you would a young kitten. When I did this, the little squirrel would cock its ears, flick its tail and look up at me with those big intelligent eyes. Needless to say, my heart melted.

    Now my experience with flying squirrels has increased ten-fold. While I was at the Powdermill Biological Station in Pennsylvania last month, I had the opportunity to observe a number of these delightful animals in the wild. Our class trapped many of them, checked their ear tags, examined them for parasites, weighed them, recorded the information and then -- best of all -- released them.

    Each time we let a squirrel go, we did so near a tree somewhat separated from others so that we could watch the little animal. It would dash off to proceed up the tree, stopping once or twice to look back accusingly at its former captors. When it reached the first branches fifty or sixty feet up, it would stop for a moment seemingly to orient itself and would then launch itself into the air, immediately spreading the skin joining its wrists to its ankles to form a rectangular kite. This way it would glide down at an angle of about thirty degrees to another tree. At the last instant of its approach to its target, it would execute a braking maneuver that would turn it up to make a perfect four point landing. Then up again it would gallop.

    While most of these little Rockies sailed only ten to twenty yards, one mounted to the very top of a tulip tree, perhaps a hundred feet above us, and sailed off at least fifty yards down across a creek into the forest on the other side. Some observers describe turns and even spirals, but we saw only straight flights.

    If these beautiful little squirrels are so common, why don't we see them? Quite simply because they are usually active after dark and we rarely venture out at night. Shine a flashlight on your bird feeder late in the evening and you might surprise one -- and in turn be yourself surprised and pleased. -- Gerry Rising