The inspiration for this week's column came from my brother-in-law, Earl, while having pizza the other evening. He lives in Missouri. Now, out of respect, I am not going to make any Missourian jokes at this time because as I said earlier, he gave me this week's topic.
He mentioned that I had not been sending copies of my column to him lately. I explained that I only sent the ones that I was proud of the humorous, the exciting, and the scholarly. But he told me that even those I might consider "uninspired" were interesting and that people appreciated them.
A short time later, he asked if he had sent me the picture of the flying squirrel that he had discovered down at their lake home. As it turned out, when cleaning out one of his bluebird nest boxes this spring, Earl was surprised by a furry creature curled up in the bottom of the box. Surprised is probably putting it mildly. He had lifted the lid and reached down into the box to clean the contents and felt this furry thing! He and his daughter soon ascertained that it was a squirrel. Replacing the top, they shortly had a southern flying squirrel looking back at them through the entrance to the box. Earl is never very far away from his camera so he snapped a couple of pictures.
Perhaps some of you are asking the question right about now "Do we have flying squirrels in Iowa?" The answer is yes, but we don't see them very often. They are a small nocturnal squirrel which makes them differ from our run of the mill, ordinary squirrels. Running around at night means you sleep during the day. My brother-in-law had disturbed this sleeping mammal in its apparently adopted, manmade cavity that nest box.
Now before I go any further, flying squirrels don't really fly in the sense of flapping flight. Bats are the only mammals that can do that. They more correctly should have been called gliding squirrels, but there is no changing their name at this point.
Flying squirrels are a mixture of tan, cinnamon, and beige in color, with a white underside. Their face and the end of their tail are grey. They have large eyes and can see extremely well in the dark. This is not surprising given their nocturnal nature and mode of locomotion. Flying squirrels are gentle and mild mannered, but they will scold you in a whiny voice when they are handled.
The unique features that enable these squirrels to fly include a large flat tail and a gliding membrane. The membrane is a fold of skin that is completely furred and stretches from wrist to ankle. In order to glide, flying squirrels leap from trees and extend their limbs to form a kite as the membrane is extended. The tail acts as a rudder, provides extra lift, and is used to stabilize the squirrel while gliding. Flying squirrels are exceptionally agile in flight, capable of glides up to 100 yards!
I have never encountered a flying squirrel utilizing any of our bluebird nest boxes. There have been plenty of field mice and wrens and wasps. However, you can bet that I'll be watching from now on, because now I know that nest boxes aren't just for flying birds anymore.