Rummaging the attic for family tintypes, I became aware that a plastic garment bag hanging from a rafter contained something besides garments. Something inside was moving. I called my daughter Mary Ellen and we took down the bag and started removing the clothes. In the sleeve of a coat there was activity. Taking the coat downstairs we got a cage and shook out a flying squirrel, an astonishing but common creature which most people have never seen.
Our captive was about nine inches long, but more than four inches of that was a curious, flattened tail. The squirrel was a drab, grayish-brown color above and had a white belly. Its fur was as soft as that of a chinchilla; it had small ears and large, shoebutton eyes. Along its sides were lines marking the folded skin which, when spread, enables it to glide and swoop through the night shadows of the forest.
In the cage the flying squirrel was calm. Instead of threshing about, as in the case of most newly caught animals, it huddled in a corner, covering its huge eyes with its tail as though to shield them from the unaccustomed light. The next night we liberated the squirrel, watched it climb a tree and then sail off through the shadows.
This incident was typical of the rare occasions when householders become aware of this gliding creature of the night. Flying squirrels are among the most nocturnal of mammals. They may frequent the trees in the yard or even share the house with a family for years without being apprehended. Most persons are incredulous when informed that they are living in close proximity to flying squirrels.
Mrs. Lorraine Rudy of Ottsville, Pa. was sitting in her living room one evening when Pearl, her large gray cat, walked in and placed a flying squirrel on the rug. A neighbor of mine tapped a small, dead tree, expecting to see a woodpecker fly out of the small hole near the top. Something flew out, all right, but it wasn't a woodpecker. A flying squirrel leaped out of the hole and sailed away like a fur-bearing flying saucer. The man had never seen one before.
The flying squirrel doesn't fly in the strict sense of the word. When it launches out from a tree it extends all four legs spread-eagle fashion and the skin folds tighten between the legs. In this position the animal resembles a furry kite. The tail is used as a rudder, giving the squirrel considerable maneuverability. It can turn quite sharply to avoid limbs and tree trunks. As it reaches the end of its glide it turns upward sharply and lands against a tree. Scampering up the tree, it takes off in another glide. Flying squirrels are reputed to glide up to 150 feet, but usually it is not more than half that.
Known to so few, the common flying squirrel, Glaucomys volans, inhabits most of the eastern half of the United States, and larger species live in the North and West. Volans normally builds its nest in a hole in a tree, but in rural sections it invades attics in strength. The young, from two to six, are born in March or April. In my attic they made a mess of the place by tearing up the nests of wasps and mud daubers to get the grubs inside. Like other squirrels they are hoarders and will store away prodigious quantities of food.
Although shy and furtive in the wild, the flying squirrel makes an interesting pet. Miss Lio Hess, a friend whose business is photographing animals, has kept flying squirrels both in the city and in the country.
Miss Hess warns against grabbing flying squirrels by the tail. In this connection she had an unnerving experience. She grabbed one by the tail and the tail came right off in her hand. It didn't break off but slipped off the bone like a glove. Miss Hess hasn't grabbed one by the tail since.
To appreciate the aerial abilities of flying squirrels it is best to watch them at liberty. Some persons have established feeding stations where they watch the little fliers through a window. Another method is to tap on trees that have holes in them. I found three squirrels living in a nest box put up for flickers. The squirrels are not prone to fly in the daytime but usually poke their heads out of the hole and stare at their visitor. My method is to sit in the gloom of the attic, where the squirrels don't seem to mind my presence. My wife, however, has expressed the opinion that both I and the squirrels ought to stay out of there.