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The nightly visits of flying squirrels

Flying squirrels feed on a platform on a December night. Note their big eyes. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 3
Seven Flying Squirrels feeding together showing their gregarious behavior. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 3
A lone flying squirrel on a tree trunk. Note the flat tail. (Photo by Larry Weber)3 / 3

Early December has been quite a different month from what we usually live with. Though we’ve had mild days during the month in the past, they are normally followed by a cold snap. This time around, we have had temperatures consistently in the 30-40-degree range and often above freezing.

Instead of skiing as I expect at this time, I have been able to continue biking. And recently as I biked, I looked down on the road not to see ice, snow or animal tracks, but instead I watched a couple of woolly bear caterpillars crawling over the pavement. Also, I have seen the activities of a few insects and spiders during these days.

Though the weather is far from normal for December, the astronomical events continue as expected. We are reaching the time of the winter solstice (night of Dec. 21-22) and along with the beginning of this new season, we experience the “shortest day of the year,” the time of the fewest minutes of daylight. Early sunsets at 4:20 p.m. have started to get later this past week, but the sunrises also get later. The long dark nights of winter continue.

I was able to take advantage of the small amount of snow on the ground this past week for seeing tracks. Many days gave us thawing in the afternoon and freezing at night. Not the best conditions for finding animal tracks, but out on the ponds and swamps, I found tracks of about 10 kinds of mammals. Most were not a surprise and during my walking, I located tracks of deer, fox, coyote, wolf, snowshoe hare, gray squirrel, deer mouse, meadow vole, shrew and beaver.

These critters are not that uncommon and, with the exception of the wolf and beaver, I see their tracks regularly when we have a snow cover. But the only mammal I actually saw was the gray squirrel.

Though the rest of these wildlife are present here all year, they are nocturnal while the gray squirrel is diurnal. I always feel like the snow cover shows a record of what goes on at night and almost never do I see these wandering critters. There is, however, another kind of nocturnal mammal that I have been seeing often lately: the flying squirrels.

Unfortunately, many of the local flora and fauna are labeled with names that are a bit misleading. Flying squirrels are indeed squirrels, but they do not fly. The only true flying mammals are the bats.

Flying squirrels are tiny, only about the size of chipmunks and smaller than their local cousins, the red squirrels. They possess a fold of skin that attaches from the front legs to the hind legs. This extension of skin gives them a set of “wings” that act as gliders. Normal use of this is to leap from their position, usually high on a tree, and spreading their legs and skin, they are able to soar through the forest. When coming to a vertical tree trunk, they extend their feet for a soft landing. This means of travel in the forests sounds like quite a unique way of movement, but the fact that it is done at night is even more amazing.

Though I have seen flying squirrels in the daytime, they are nearly 100 percent nocturnal. They are well adapted to night travel. In addition to their gliding apparatus, they are also equipped with large nocturnal sensitive eyes and a flat tail that serves as a rudder for steering through the trees. Most of the sounds that I’ve heard from them have been high-pitched squeaks and squeals.

They live in the woods of the Northland and are more common than most of us realize. Indeed, we are one of the few places in the country that has two species of flying squirrels, the northern and southern. Both are gray-brown above with light color beneath. Though each kind is small, the northern, more of a resident of the boreal forests, is a bit larger. The southern live in woods of larger deciduous trees. Though flying squirrels may be living amongst us, we usually don’t see them unless we feed them.

Each winter, I have been putting out sunflower seeds at dusk on an illuminated feeding platform. “If you build it, they will come” and they do. From about 6 p.m. until the gallon of seeds is gone, they glide in and devour this food. Being more gregarious than other tree squirrels, they often snack next to others. But they don’t stand still very long and it is difficult to count them. I’ve seen as many as 15 but the normal is about 10. Most are southern, but I’ve seen some larger northern ones here, too.

As with seeing birds at the feeder, they are just plain interesting to watch. And though this mild December has been making bird-feeding less than normal in the daytime, these flying squirrels make the feeder watching interesting and enjoyable at night.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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