Southern Flying Squirrels
Time to make the donuts. Like Fred the Dunkin Donuts baker, I sometimes feel like I am lapping myself. Except that I’m not making donuts, I’m feeding babies—wild baby mammals from Peace River Wildlife Center. I recently had eight baby wood rats that needed to be fed every two to three hours. Unfortunately only three of them survived, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t due to my lack of maternal abilities. Or that I forgot to feed them. Or left them in the car seat on top of my car as I drove away. Or forgot to bring them home from the laundromat. Or any of the other nightmarish scenarios that actually haunted my dreams when my actual daughter was first born. I was very attentive to my rat babies (as I was to my daughter—don’t believe a word she says on the subject), but as sometimes happens in the world of wildlife rehabilitation, a few of them didn’t make it.
I finally got my three baby rats weaned and set up in a big cage at home since I didn’t have to carry them with me wherever I go. True story—if you ever see me at Publix with a large Home Depot bag with a cord hanging out, it is not a bomb. Since I have to feed them so frequently, I have to carry my babies with me to and from work every day so they are set up in a small container, atop a heating pad, the cord of which pokes through the bottom of a cloth bag for easy access to electrical outlets. So if you are squeamish about the possibility that some of your fellow grocery store customers are of the rodent variety, don’t ask, and I won’t tell what’s in the bag.
No sooner did I get the rats weaned, than three adorable baby flying squirrels swooped into my life. Now they need to be fed every two to three hours. It certainly is a good thing they are so cute.
The southern flying squirrel is a small rodent native to the eastern half of North America, including southeast Canada. It is the only nocturnal member of the squirrel family. It does not actually fly, but glides from tree to tree by use of a patagium, a web of skin extending from the wrist to ankle. When launching itself from a treetop, the flyer extends his front and rear limbs creating a sail. He can control the direction and momentum of his “flight” by flexing the patagium and using his flat tail as a rudder. He can make 90 degree turns in midair and leap up to 50 feet.
While graceful at aerial maneuvering, once on the ground the flying squirrel becomes clumsy. Often a perfectly healthy adult can be picked up and mistaken as an injured juvenile. If someone finds a flying squirrel on the ground the best thing to do is pick it up gently using a glove or towel—they can bite!—and place it on the side of a tree. A healthy individual will likely scurry around and up the tree very quickly. If after five or ten minutes the flyer hasn’t moved, or if it is bleeding or obviously injured, place it in a small box with a paper towel or cloth. Keep it in a warm, dark, quiet location until it can be transported to PRWC or your closest local wildlife rehabilitation facility.
In southwest Florida the flyers often nest in palm trees. They use hollows in the trunk formed by woodpeckers or build nests in the boots or bases of dead leaves that have fallen off. Tree trimming can disrupt the nest either due to the noise, causing mom to flee, or knocking the nest out of the tree. As with eastern grey squirrels, the best thing to do if a nest is disrupted is leave the babies for mom to retrieve. Until the commotion of the trimming process is over, place the babies in a shady, warm, quiet place. As soon as possible put the babies back close to where the nest was found. An eastern grey squirrel mother should return and move her babies to a new nest within the hour. A flying squirrel may not return until dusk. The mothers will not return if there are people in the vicinity, so watch conspicuously from a distance.
The flying squirrel babies in our care at PRWC will be released as soon as they are ready using a method called soft release. First they have to learn how to eat on their own. We will start with rodent block and monkey biscuits soaked in formula. Then graduate on to nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables and even insects. The flyers are more carnivorous than grey squirrels. They will be placed in a cage outside when they are ready and after a few days the door of the cage will be left ajar so they can come and go at will. Eventually the flyers will stop coming back to sleep and be fed. They will find others of their own kind and make new bonds and learn how to be little wild animals. Just like my daughter is doing at college.
by–Robin Jenkins, DVM