When Squirrels Fly

flying-squirrel-11-16My most recently rescued dog is a huge help with the yardwork. Benjamin is a long-haired standard dachshund who seems to delight in letting me know when it is time to mow the grass. He is much too polite to point out that the weeds that grow in my back yard are not even remotely related to any species of intentionally cultivated grass. But he is a champion when it comes to dragging in a ton of “hitchhikers” from those weeds as they go to seed. Maybe my next dog will actually mow the yard instead of just making my life miserable until I do. Maybe my next dog should be a goat?

Instead of a goat, I got a southern flying squirrel. This home care patient is massively less useful than a goat, but she’s a whole lot cuter. She is a juvenile that was found on the ground and seemed uninterested in scampering away when given the opportunity.

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.  This is a web of skin extending from the wrist to ankle, and makes a great Scrabble word. When launching itself from a treetop, the flyer extends his front and rear limbs creating a parachute of sorts. 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, like eastern grey squirrels, breed in autumn when nuts are plentiful. 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.

The best thing to do if a squirrel 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. A 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 are raised with the intention of releasing them as soon as they are ready using a method called soft release. First, they must learn how to eat on their own. They 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. 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.

Speaking of wild things, PRWC welcomes you to walk on the wild side this Friday, December 16 when we will host another Sunset Celebration from 4-6p.m. Guests are welcome to visit the Center after our normal hours to watch the sunset over Charlotte Harbour, enjoy the musical musings of PRWC’s own talented board member, Steve Widmeyer, and see the birds in a whole new light.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM