A charming little waif that is seldom seen

A charming little waif that is seldom seen

By By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

I think it is safe to say that the majority of people living in northern Illinois have never seen a flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) or even know of its existence. Although seldom seen, this small squirrel is by no means uncommon in our area. It is a creature of the night, being active only at dusk and throughout the hours of darkness—a nocturnal wanderer—well adapted to nightlife with its large luminous eyes.

During the day the flying squirrel rolls itself into a furry ball and sleeps the hours of light away in a cavity in a tree, in a nest of leaves, in an abandoned birdhouse, or an attic of a house. Sometimes several of them will occupy the same “apartment,” and a lumberman may be surprised when he fells a hollow tree and 10 to 15 squirrels bail out when the tree hits the ground.

The flying squirrel is a bona fide member of the squirrel tribe, but it differs from the its better known gray, red, and fox cousins in several ways. Its body is a little over five inches in length, and the flat, rudder-shaped, fully furred tail is about three inches in length. The head is short with a snub-nose, and the large eyes and rounded ears are expressive. The fur is luxuriously soft and silky, grayish buff above, and immaculately white below.

However, the most distinctive feature of the flying squirrel is the fur-covered fold of skin on both sides of the body — from wrists to ankles and stiffened by a rods arising from the wrists. These folds are the source of the “flying” part of the common name of this delightful little sprite. The folds are also colored dark above and white below, and they blend in so well with the rest of the body that they are hardly noticeable when the animal is at rest.

Flying squirrels do not fly; they volate or glide. From a limb of a tree the animal launches itself into space and spreads its legs to the side, opening up the all important folds of skin on a flat plane, becoming, in fact, a miniature sail plane or glider. If the wind is right, the little varmint may cover a distance of some 40 yards, but it does not flap its legs and cannot make an upward flight. By using the tail as a rudder and changing the position of the limbs, this undersized aviator is able to make right angle turns and depress or elevate the angle of its glide.

Food is usually no problem for the flying squirrel as it has developed an omnivorous diet. When its preferred food of acorns, maple seeds. and hickory nuts is not available, it readily switches to other types of seeds, fungi, and insects. It has been observed to occasionally vary its diet with an egg or two from a small bird’s nest. In October when hickory nuts and acorns are ready to be harvested they may be retrieved and eaten or stored for future use.

As their teeth are not sufficiently strong enough to bite out a piece of a hard-shelled nut, special procedures must be employed to extract the meat. Notches are gnawed on the shell by the teeth and are used to grasp and carry the nut away. By considerable rasping and grinding away at the shell, the notches are enlarged to a point where the meat can be extracted. If only a portion of the nut is eaten, the acorn or hickory nut may be stored for future use.

These little charmers do not hibernate in the true sense of the term and are usually active throughout the year. However, during a prolonged cold spell they may go into a brief state of torpidity which is not the same as true hibernation. When the temperature rises, they resume their normal activities. When waiting for the wintry blasts to subside, as many as 15 squirrels may ball up together in a secluded spot to share body warmth.

As pets, these little pixies easily weaned away from the wild and have been described as more intelligent and gentler than hamsters, once they have adapted to their new environment. Dr. Donald F. Hoffmeister, Director Emeritus of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Illinois, describes a case where a flying squirrel was maintained as a pet for several years by a couple in Champaign. By day the squirrel was kept in a cage in the house; by night it was released and allowed to roam throughout the premises. It frequently climbed the drapes and, to the delight of its owners, jumped and sailed gracefully to other parts of the room.

It is difficult to estimate the number of flying squirrels in a given locality as they are seldom seen, but wildlife biologists believe their numbers throughout Illinois are considerable. Flying squirrels have many enemies in nature, but, fortunately for them, man hardly knows they exist and has not yet declared war on them in the name of sport.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of eastern Maryland, with degrees in zoology and botany. He is a former professor of biological science. He has had 30 scientific papers published, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on marine biology of Maryland.

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