Mar/Apr 2006For Wildlife Watchers: Flying squirrelby Rob Simbeck

At the end of the opening credits of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Rocky the Flying Squirrel executes a daring maneuver that lets him rise to the vertical and hang in midair just long enough for his loyal, if dimwitted, pal Bullwinkle the Moose to catch him.

It's actually a fairly realistic move for a cartoon creature, as real flying squirrels can bring off acrobatic turns and lifts before landing, something they generally do on the trunks of trees. As for the rest of Rocky's maneuvers - the aerobatic loops and swirls, accompanied by whooshing rocket sounds - well, those are pure fantasy. Sometimes, in nature, gliding is enough.

It is definitely enough for the flying squirrel, whose aerodynamic specialty comes courtesy of a swatch of skin called a patagium. It's attached at the wrists and ankles and makes the squirrel look like it's wearing a snug little body-length cape. Thrown out as the squirrel leaps from a branch, it catches enough wind to allow an angular descent to the next tree. At the last second, the squirrel can throw up its tail and forelimbs and rise or turn before dropping onto the trunk, often completing the trip with a little scamper around to the back of the tree, just in case a flying predator like an owl or hawk has been in pursuit.

Once on the tree, the flying squirrel will roam about like any of its relatives, looking for food. It's a sight few of us see because, besides being largely arboreal, flying squirrels are also nocturnal. Given a little knowledge and persistence, though, most of us could easily spot them now and then.

"They are far more common than people realize," says Billy Dukes, a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "I have heard of them visiting bird feeders at night and have personally witnessed them coming to ears of corn set out specifically for them."

Called fairy diddles by some, flying squirrels are graceful and almost magical in appearance. A normal flight for them might be 30 to 50 feet, although they have been known to travel farther than 250 feet, and they glide with a vertical drop of one foot for every three feet or so of horizontal glide. They are smaller than other squirrels, about six inches long, with flattened and bushy tails adding another four inches. They weigh just a few ounces. Greyish brown with white bellies, they have black rings around large eyes capable of great night vision, and they have excellent hearing and long, sensitive whiskers, as well.

They are members of the squirrel family, which includes chipmunks and woodchucks. They can be found across the eastern United States - most, if not all, of those in South Carolina are Southern flying squirrels - in hardwood and mixed forests.

Southern flying squirrel Glaucomys volans (flying grey mouse)

Description: To 10-inch total length, including tail. Grey back, white belly. Loose fold of skin acts as sail for gliding.

Range and Habitat: Deciduous and mixed forests, including those in suburbs, with old, tall trees. Throughout eastern North America.

Reproduction: Gives birth to 2 to 6 young, usually in both April and July.

Viewing Tips: In wooded areas, get out after dark with a flashlight. Listen for chewing or a tseet sound in trees. Use downward-pointing spotlight near bird feeders or bait stations.

"Any cavity, natural or artificial, provides a good den for flying squirrels," says Dukes. "I have seen them in bluebird boxes, and they commonly occur in den cavities of red-cockaded and other woodpeckers." They have also been known to enter attics, sheds and abandoned buildings.

Females generally give birth twice a year, in April and July. The nest, which the female will defend, is lined with leaves, bark and grass, and after forty days' gestation, the female gives birth to two to six young, with two to three being common. The young, born blind and naked, mature enough to be weaned at two months, by which time they're also making short foraging trips with their mother.

Depending on the season, they may eat a wide variety of foods, including fruit, nuts, seeds, berries, buds, insects, spiders and, on occasion, bird eggs or nestlings, making them the only carnivorous squirrel. They will sometimes forage on the ground - where they are vulnerable to cats and raccoons - for nuts, and they will eat mushrooms and other fungi. An enlarged gland on their lips is thought to enable them to find underground fungi, and they have been seen drinking sap from sugar maples.

Flying squirrels, like other squirrels, store food for winter consumption. In cold weather, as many as twenty of them will share a nest hole. While they do not hibernate, they do get sluggish in very cold weather, emerging only to eat previously hidden food.

They tolerate humans well and are relatively abundant in South Carolina, which means that if you know what you're looking for, you might be in for adventure.

"They are well-adapted to suburban environments," says Dukes, "as long as some mature hardwood trees are present. Bait stations can increase the likelihood of seeing them, although that always raises the risk of nuisance problems from other wildlife. Dusk to one hour after dark will provide the best viewing potential, and floodlights angled downward may provide fleeting glimpses as they visit bait stations. I have seen them hanging onto the suspension wires of a wind chime, and I once had a brief encounter with one looking out of a hollow in an oak tree in my yard during daylight hours."

This is a seldom-seen resident of many suburban and rural areas, but one that's well worth the effort it takes to make its acquaintance.

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