Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 19, 2011

Pocket Squirrel

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

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It’s not my usual style to focus on “pets” because this is a nature – as in wild – oriented blog. My recent introduction to Velcro, however, forced my hand. First of all, because he was a rescued wild orphan, he was not technically a pet and I am not in danger of denying any of my card-carrying naturalist instincts. Secondly, Velcro may be the only one of his kind you will ever see. This means it is my duty to present him to you. In truth, I was actually swayed by the totally unprofessional and unmanly urge to declare “Awww, how adorable” when in his presence. This is one cute little creature and I will not allow myself to be the sole victim of his allure. Who is Velcro? He is a Southern flying Squirrel.

Discovered as an orphan some months ago, this miniature mammal was put under the care of the interpretive staff at the Stoney Creek Nature Center (one of the other parks in “my” Huron Clinton Metropark system). Under their able care he has blossomed into a healthy six month old flying squirrel. To describe him as active would not do him justice. Out of the cage and into the hands of his human handler, Velcro freely skitters up the arm and eventually down into the pant pocket of Supervising Interpreter Doug Spiller. There he pokes out his head and waits for a finger massage behind the ear. After this therapeutic repast, he’s back up on Doug’s outstretched hand. From that high perch he rocked his head back and forth in order to judge the distance to the next human standing in the room (see below) and then launched into the air . We were his trees and he was a flying squirrel, after-all. Anyone within six feet was a potential tree.

I became the landing pad on that first jump but the squirrel soon bored of me (that kind of thing often happens to me). He sought out the company of the all other human trees in the room before finally settling on one of my fellow interpreters, Julie.  She cheated, of course. Julie offered a fresh acorn in her outstretched hand and Velcro could not pass up such a prize. He worked on that acorn for the remainder of our visit. Fortunately, Julie’s ploy served to settle the thing down so that I could take some focused shots.

This was his first acorn, but he went at it like a pro – first popping off the cap and then proceeding to gouge out the meat. Doug mentioned that, even though he doesn’t eat them, Velcro has been in the habit of destroying pencil erasers in a like fashion. “There is not a pencil in this place that is safe” he quiped. We all laughed. Velcro had us in such a state of amazement that we lost sight of the fact that this animal could pee in our mouths at any moment (but that too would have been considered a cute thing, wouldn’t it?).

O.K. now let’s get past the “adorable stuff” and try to salvage the reputation of this blog (if indeed there is any reputation to save). It’s time for a reality check here. Flying squirrels are omnivores. So, you see, Julie was potentially risking her life in that room. These squirrels eat nuts and fruits, but they also take in insects and carrion. As a matter of fact, one of these squirrels actually killed and ate a Yellow-breasted Sapsucker that was confined with it! Thank God that the nut satisfied Velcro.

As a Southern Flying Squirrel, Velcro represents a species of rodent that doesn’t reveal itself too often. Officially called Glaucomys volans , a name which means “flying gray mouse” in hybrid Greek and Latin, these diminutive squirrels are actually quite common. They inhabit hardwood forest situations and prefer park-like areas with ample space between the trees. Some estimates put their average population at 2 to 6 per acre in good habitat. Winter populations can exceed 20 or more in a single tree cavity. But, because they are exclusively nocturnal (thus the reason for the huge eyes) they aren’t spotted too often. Thus they are considered scarce. It’s like a fellow told me the other day “You know owls must be very very rare”, he said “I never see any.” Of course, this was a fellow who went to bed at 10:15 pm every night. I did not bring up the subject of those “extremely rare” flying squirrels to this guy lest I ended up saying something insensitive.

To be truthful, I’ve only seen wild flying squirrels on one occasion (a bunch of young squirrels in a bluebird house nest), but I have heard them a number of times in the darkness. They chirp like birds. Considering that they engage in a type of flight, this might seem like a logical sound. Flying squirrels do not fly, but they do glide. Employing a stretchy flap of skin located between the wrist and ankle called the patagium, the creatures leap into the air, open up like a kite, and drift over to their desired landing point.  The flat tail serves as a stabilizer (not as a rudder) in much the same way as the tail serves on a kite.

Velcro did not need to use his flap while jumping the relatively short distance between the humans in the room. You can see the extra skin located behind his front feet in the accompanying photos. It is covered by a fine coating of hair lined with a neat racing stripe. A stiff cartilage rod, extending out from the wrist, supports the leading edge of the flap when extended. Otherwise it is folded back along the body.

It is worth noting that flying squirrels have been recorded in the wild as spanning gaps of 130 feet or more between trees.  Their flight path always takes a slight downward angle and is concluded by a quick upward turn just before hitting their spot Observers have noted that they often shut their eyes for part of the journey in order to avoid eye injury from passing twigs, etc. Any further distance and they’d need to wear a pair of goggles. Wait, I just had the image of a moose go through my mind…

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