As a child growing up in Indiana, I have fond memories of visiting my Uncle Darold. He and Aunt Mabel lived in the woods just outside Elkhart and they had a flying squirrel for a pet. I used to enter the living room cautiously, scanning the curtain ruffs for the beast with the sharp claws. When you least expected, he would suddenly land on your shoulder and snuggle up against your neck.
It would be decades before I would once again cross paths with the little glider.
Our first summer at our Silver Gate cabin, Cindy was tossing out a pan of dishwater just after dark, when something glided out of the night to land in the pan. With a shriek, Cindy threw the dishpan and dashed back inside. She had met her first flying squirrel.
When winter came, flying squirrels became a common occurrence at our bird feeder. This has continued each subsequent winter nights since. Some have become stalwarts, ones we could recognize and look for every evening. There was this big male that used to appear just before dusk, sometimes when our red squirrels have not even left for the night. The three youngsters who always came together, chasing each other around playfully or the lovebirds that would sit side by side like on a dinner date.
In the mid nineties, my friend Jeff and I were contracted to get some flying squirrel footage for BBC. We set up floodlights and prepared to go without sleep for a week. The first squirrel arrived with a slap on a lodge pole about an hour after dark. Some forty-five minutes later he was displaced by another. Then two youngsters arrived and displaced him. During the middle of the night very little happened then towards dawn a couple more visited. In all we identified seven individuals. By the third night we could recognize them by their facial features and approach routes. We were even able to predict which one would appear next and it’s arrival time.
A few years ago Jeff and I were working on another BBC films, “Yellowstone, Battle For Life”. We were preparing to head into the park just before dawn when I clicked on our porch light and discovered a boreal owl perched on a flying squirrel. How it had managed to kill something that outweighed it is a mystery. I snapped a quick photo before it carried the half eaten squirrel off into the darkness.
The only other predation I’ve witnessed was of a flying squirrel that was feeding on the ground. It suddenly spooked and raced up a tree, right into the claws of a waiting marten. A few bites and away bounded the marten with its catch. I remember shaking my head stunned, wandering “what just happened here?”
When spring arrives I walk the forest searching for nesting birds. One tried and true method is to knock on trees containing cavities. Often I’m rewarded with songbirds appearing at the holes, but every now and then I get a flying squirrel. On rare occasions I’ll even spot one out and about in the middle of the day. As a matter of fact, recent research has discovered flyers are thought to be active during the day once a year during breeding season, as they search for mates.
But usually they’re only seen in our headlights, zipping above the highway like shooting stars. Or squeaking at us from the tree tops as we walk a wooded path after dark. Reminding us that as we’re going to bed for the night another population is starting its daily routine.