Flying squirrel: Marlin Hutchison finds one in a birdhouse 2010.04.14

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

The squirrel that jumped out of a birdhouse didn’t look quite right to Marlin “Hutch” Hutchison.flying_squirrel.jpg

It was a little smaller than the typical grey or red squirrel. The tail was rather wide and flat and its eyes looked larger than squirrels he sees around the yard. And there was that membrane of baggy skin running alongside the body.

When Hutch first saw the animal, he didn’t even recognize it as a squirrel.

He was removing some old, damaged bird houses from trees and when he bumped one with a pole, he thought he saw a big leaf fall out—until the leaf moved to the base of a tree.

That’s when Hutch got a better look and decided there was a flying squirrel living in the birdhouse on his property west of Morenci.

Hutch reported recently that he’s only seen the squirrel twice, and both times were due to his “encouragement.” He knocked the birdhouse once again to get the animal onto a tree trunk for a photograph.

“Now that I have pictures it will be able to go along in its life without me disturbing it,” he said.

Once he knew what it was, he still wondered how much of a rarity his guest was. He searched on the internet and discovered that southern Michigan isn’t on the range map for the northern flying squirrel.

He sent an e-mail to an environmental organization in Ontario that mentioned flying squirrels and he soon had an answer to his question.

The range of the southern flying squirrel extends halfway up Michigan’s lower peninsula, and that range is growing.

Hutch was told the range is rapidly expanding northward—a likely outcome of climate change—and that genetic data shows a hybridization in Central Ontario between the northern and southern flying squirrels.

Park employee Jeff Merillat said he’s heard reports of flying squirrels at Harrison Lake State Park, “but we’re not sure if that’s what they are or not.”

Squirrel hunters Barb and Butch Sutherland of rural Morenci have never made the acquaintance of the flying variety, but there’s no question in the mind of Scott Wagner of Fayette. He’s seen a few of them back when he was squirrel hunting.

It turns out that the flying squirrel is probably not all that uncommon in this area. The unusual thing is to see the critters that generally only come out at night.

According to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, “Southern flying squirrels are often the most common squirrel in hardwood woodlands and suburban areas. Because they are nocturnal and seldom seen, most people don’t recognize that they live with flying squirrels.”

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission describes the squirrel’s gliding as spectacular.

The squirrel will climb to a lofty perch, move its head around to assess the landing site, then launch itself with all four legs extended to stretch the flying membrane.

“With tremendous agility, flying squirrels can steer around branches or other obstacles. Most steering is done with the tail, but squirrels also vary the tension on the membrane to steer and to control speed. They usually land on the vertical trunk of another tree, invariably upright with the hind feet touching first.”

Glides occasionally extend for more than 50 yards, but much shorter flights are typical. They appear to have a gliding ratio of three horizontal feet for every vertical foot.

Hutch is finished bothering his neighboring squirrel, but he could get to know it better. The Michigan DNR suggests illuminating an area with a red light. The light won’t bother the squirrel, but it gives humans the opportunity to watch its behavior.

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