Faces of Wetlands: Flying Squirrel

Note: This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic and saved for a later time. In publishing it, we hope these sentiments of overcoming limits, being friendly in public, and planning for the wise stewardship of our world also transfer to the realm of public health, with a penny of encouragement and hope.

Flying squirrels are a forest-dwelling rodent, and VLAWMO spotted one in a local wetland in the Fall of 2019. Many forest fragments in suburban communities are preserved because they’re actually wooded wetlands. While flying squirrels are known to seek upland old growth forests, a wooded wetland can also provide a dense canopy with cozy flying-squirrel nooks. The Twin Cities is right on the cusp between the northern and southern flying squirrel species ranges. To our best ability, VLAWMO estimates that it captured the southern flying squirrel, Glaucomys volans, with a motion-activated remote camera.

Measuring 10-12 inches long with a long, flat tail and large beady eyes, the southern flying squirrel is nocturnal and much smaller than daytime squirrels. While flying squirrels can’t actually fly, a fold of skin called a patagium helps them glide from a running start or a stationary jump. Typically gliding at a 30-40° degree angle and reaching distances up to 150’, this epic stunt lasts only but a few moments. With impressive agility, flying squirrels can also dodge obstacles in mid-air, with turns as tight as 90°. To land, they raise their long tail to shift their trajectory, braking like a parachute. With outstretched paws, they absorb the impact as they grab the tree, then quickly scamper to the other side of the trunk or branch. This last part serves as a safety precaution, dodging owls or other predators that might stalk their airborne path. Pine martens, red fox, and domestic cats are also known to prey on flying squirrels, often taking advantage of their clumsiness on the ground.  

Flying squirrels have a diverse pallet. With a sharp nose and long whiskers, they track down mushrooms, lichens, nuts, tree sap, insects, bird eggs and chicks, buds, flowers, and carrion. The smell of decaying wood serves a general guide for their dining locations, as it likely indicates the presence of dense fallen debris, cavities, fungi, and scurrying insects. Wooded wetlands are great spots for all of these features. In urban woodlots with dense debris and wet soils, fallen branches are often left alone, and shifting water levels cater to trees turning over in a cycle of death and growth. In upland areas, old growth oaks are favorable places rich with nooks and food sources. 

While common, these chipmunk-sized nocturnal gliders are seldom seen. Hiding out as we scurry to work, social activities, and grocery stores, flying squirrels are the cute critter that’s adored yet elusive. A quick walk through the park isn’t likely to stumble across them, yet they’re actually quite common in mixed deciduous/coniferous forests. One of the most common ways to get lucky in finding them is discovering a nest in winter. Because flying squirrels don’t hibernate, they team up and share “aggregate” nests not to raise young, but to keep warm in the winter months. Sometimes up to 10 squirrels share a cavity, likely carved out by woodpeckers the year before.  

In the world of water resources, careful planning is everything. In our watershed studies and improvement projects, there’s always a blend of science, technology, budget, and community interests swirling about in a delicate dance. Just like lakes and streams, every human community is different with unique needs and interests. Much of our landscape is already built upon, but backtracking to improve our watershed impact isn’t quite convenient. Dozens of priorities beyond water can either support watershed improvements or distract and deter from them. If this all sounds like a recipe for a board game, it actually is. “The Watershed Game” is a real game developed by the University of Minnesota, complete with playing cards, teams, tricky dilemmas, and water quality goals. To make progress in the game, partnership is key. Limited budgets have to pair with relevant projects that work for the people as well as the water quality goal. The projects (raingardens, retention basins, erosion control, etc.) have to find a specific location, and to top it off have to have a solid base of community members that support it from start to finish.

It reminds me of an ongoing exchange I have with the manager of the grocery store I frequent. After work when I’m at the checkout, we chat about where we’re going on our next vacation. Somewhere in the mix, we started a tongue-in-cheek plan to go visit Hawai’i. For a few years this has gone on, each time elaborating to the point of a hypothetical joke sounding real to other customers. It’s a rare exchange in our world of self check-outs and mail orders. To be a regular to the point of friendly banter feels as if I’m stepping out of the world of competition and into a world of collaboration – where the boundaries between home and the store dissolve. One day, instead of chiming in on our grand Hawai’i adventure, she told me “you know, sometimes it’s the planning that’s the best part.”

Somewhere in the game of watershed planning is an elusive flying squirrel – a nuanced sweet spot of planning that builds community as it improves water. To find it, much like finding a flying squirrel or making friends at the grocery store, it takes intention, understanding, and a will to look beyond the obvious “daytime” routine. It’s a success that lurks beyond the realm of obligation, and finding it may even feel like becoming a nocturnal flying squirrel. To find it we must explore the unknown shadows of possibility: New relationships, new conversations, and a sense of shared responsibility. A deeper knowledge about local ecology and place: lakes, streams, and wooded wetlands. Flying squirrels may not be able to actually fly, but isn’t it exhilarating to leap out, dodge obstacles in mid-air, and stick the landing? Indeed there’s risk, but when has that ever stopped either rodents or humans from the pursuit of greatness? Maybe like daredevils leaping out of planes in squirrel suits, like being friendly in public, or like planning for wise stewardship of our world, the pursuit of flying is the pursuit of overcoming limits. Of connecting on a deeper level, and achieving an elusive greatness beyond words – even if just for a moment.

A number of plans are underway in this and every watershed, rich with opportunity for public involvement and collaboration. Join our watershed planning effort by keeping up on VLAWMO’s social media, workshops, presentations, volunteer opportunities, and wildlife remote cameras.

-Nick Voss, VLAWMO Education and Outreach Coordinator

Sources: 

MN DNR - 1   MN DNR - 2   Sailis.org     Wildlifelandtrust.org

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