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A True Mystery Photo

11-2-18 flying squirrel tails_U1A1190A discovery recently brought to my attention has stumped this naturalist.   What you are looking at is a collection of Flying Squirrel tails lying within a 30-square-foot patch of ground adjacent to a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. For several days in succession, additional tails appeared each morning, eventually totaling 20 or more.

Flying Squirrels, both Northern and Southern, are part of many animals’ diet.  Among the documented predators are Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Screech Owls, Northern Goshawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Martens, River Otters, Weasels, Fishers, Red Foxes and Bobcat.  Many of these animals can gain access to the trees where the Flying Squirrels reside.  Others take advantage of squirrels foraging on the ground.

The puzzling part of this mystery is the large number of tails.  In cold weather (usually in winter, but we’ve had below-freezing nights recently), Flying Squirrels huddle together in tree cavities in an attempt to provide themselves with added warmth.  Did a foraging Fisher discover a communal den?  How did it manage to capture so many squirrels?  Did the survivors remain in the same cavity, only to be captured in subsequent nights?  So many questions that this naturalist cannot answer. Perhaps a reader can! (Thanks to John Quimby and Michael O’Donnell, who kindly shared their fascinating discovery with me.)

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39 responses

  1. Libby Hillhouse

    …and the live squirrel in the inset? Any relationship to the incident?

    November 2, 2018 at 8:01 am

    • No, just a flying squirrel that I had previously photographed and included so that those not familiar with the animal could see one!

      November 2, 2018 at 10:16 am

  2. janetpesaturo

    How interesting! Yes, it does sound like something (and fisher is a good guess) must have discovered a communal den, but if so, it’s amazing that the squirrels continued to use the same den. It’s possible that they did move – but to a new cavity within the same tree, only to be rediscovered by the same predator each time. Or that the predator was raiding different cavities within the same tree. What state was this in, and was there a large cavity tree near the tail collection?

    November 2, 2018 at 8:14 am

    • janetpesaturo

      Sorry, I wasn’t clear there. Sentence starting with “Or…” should be replaced with “Or that the squirrels occupied multiple cavities within the same tree, and the predator was raiding one at a time on different nights”

      November 2, 2018 at 8:30 am

    • Hi Janet,
      This occurred in central Vermont, Fairlee, to be exact. I did not see any cavities nearby, but I didn’t do a thorough search. I’m leaning towards a house cat…

      November 2, 2018 at 10:15 am

      • janetpesaturo

        I think a domestic cat would leave more debris.

        November 2, 2018 at 10:34 am

      • Mark Dindorf

        Many years ago we had a house cat who caught flying squirrels in the old Victorian we lived in, and left us the tails in a similar fashion, but never that many in one night! My guess is that whatever caught them had them cornered and was able to kill off the whole brood.

        November 2, 2018 at 4:41 pm

      • Lynn

        Janet, I am a Vermonter. Could it be Fairlee’s resident Peregrine Falcons That nest on the Palisades over I-91? Have you looked for scat? You’d find fur and bones. If there is no scat nearby I would go with the Fisher Cat. And I’d keep my domesticated animals under a watchful eye. I knew a woman who lost a house cat that was sitting on a deck to a Fisher while the entire family watched. Fishers are fierce!

        November 3, 2018 at 5:28 pm

  3. susan thomas

    were they all fresh tails? perhaps a predator eats them on reg basis but not the tail and then the nest of predator got blown over or otherwise destroyed, spewing ‘trash’ all around?

    November 2, 2018 at 8:45 am

    • They were all relatively fresh, with one or more appearing each day.

      November 2, 2018 at 10:14 am

  4. Alice Pratt

    Were there no other signs of squirrels being eaten, on the ground? Blood, bones?

    November 2, 2018 at 8:54 am

    • Just the innards of a squirrel or two…

      November 2, 2018 at 10:14 am

  5. Rachael Cohen

    Whatever it turns out to be, please send it over to my place to consume the flying squirrels occupying my walls and ceilings.

    November 2, 2018 at 8:56 am

  6. Lese Able

    Predators will eat all but the meatless tail. I don’t see in the article where this location is(Country, State, town), does it say and I missed it? If we were told, we could probably make an educated guess as to which predator it is. It also doesn’t say which time of year it is. Spring? Fall? Is there a large owl or hawk nest above? Not enough info, which is why it is a mystery.

    November 2, 2018 at 9:13 am

    • This occurred in central Vermont, this fall. No bird of prey nest in vicinity. Leaning towards a domestic cat…

      November 2, 2018 at 10:18 am

  7. Carolyn Parrott

    This photo reminds me of a particular autumn–maybe five years or so ago here in southern NH–when our two housecats caught a total of 40 (!!!) flying squirrels leaving only their tails on our kitchen floor, That year we saved the tails and gave them to our wildlife biologist nephew as a gag Christmas gift, Since then they have killed a few every year, but never as many as that one year We figure their favorite wild food is flying squirrels; they never seem to want to eat the moles and voles they kill.

    November 2, 2018 at 9:23 am

    • Thank you, Carolyn. I’m leaning in your direction – makes perfect sense, and there could well have been a cat in this area. Thank you.

      November 2, 2018 at 10:13 am

  8. 4Conway4

    I’ve had a couple experiences of flying squirrels living in the wall and attic. They are very tolerant of intrusive activity and so seem to be vulnerable to capture by predators.

    November 2, 2018 at 9:42 am

  9. Ed Stockman

    Feral and domesticated house cats have been known to deposit the remains of their hunting activities in a similar manner.

    November 2, 2018 at 9:56 am

    • I think this may well be the answer! Thank you.

      November 2, 2018 at 10:12 am

  10. Larry Master

    My guess, and its just a guess, is that fisher did indeed find the roosting bunch of flying squirrels and proceeded to kill them all, and then ate some each day, discarding the tails. It’s hard to imagine that the squirrels would not have moved to a new location had they been able to escape.

    Larry

    Larry Master

    P.O. Box 253

    42 Fisk Way

    Keene, NY 12942

    518-645-1545

    http://www.masterimages.org

    and

    42 Lake Road

    West Cornwall, CT 06796

    November 2, 2018 at 10:05 am

    • janetpesaturo

      That;s a really good thought and I am inclined to agree.

      November 2, 2018 at 10:33 am

  11. Sally

    I have seen this before but not in the number you describe. How sad.

    November 2, 2018 at 10:56 am

  12. Sally

    Years ago, when we lived in a woods house, we strung a feeder suspended between trees. We’d fill it with sunflower seeds in the winter and the flying squirrels would swoop in at night in great numbers, knocking each other off to get to the seeds. We’d turn on the deck light and watch their antics. It was a delight.

    November 2, 2018 at 11:05 am

  13. Susan

    A few years back, when there was an abundance of red squirrels, my cat would catch one or two almost daily and bring them home to eat. Perhaps this hemlock stand is a home eating spot for a rodent eating animal or two. There is certainly an abundance of rodents this season. Any consistent wild scat in this general area?

    November 2, 2018 at 11:26 am

  14. Chele Miller

    My suspicion is that an owl found a primo perch near a well-populated flying squirrel crevice and enjoyed room (or in this case) limb service.

    Still love your posts, Mary. Thanks, Chele Miller

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    November 2, 2018 at 11:29 am

  15. Laurie Stokes

    Marge,

    I’m going to tell Mary that you did it!!

    >

    November 2, 2018 at 11:34 am

  16. Hope McLaughlin

    I once ran across a similar find…in the parking lot of a well-known maple syrup farm in Central Vermont. At the time, I thought that the human beings had perhaps skinned some animals, and had left the tails, but I could not fathom why. Domesticated cats were probably the cause.

    November 2, 2018 at 12:21 pm

  17. Dundeen Galipeau

    Saddest story and another reason why cats should be kept inside! Years back I actually captured a flying squirrel and kept it. Yes, I know “ It’s illegal to harbor a wild animal in the State of Vermont” but I didn’t know that then. Put the trap out and caught another! My husband built a wire cage that went 2 stories with tunnels and his and her houses(or whatever sex they were) and after our young children had gone to bed, I’d sit and watch them move on “their forested floors, up their wired trees and up into the canopy above, their houses”. I fed so much to them and had them for quite awhile….. imagine please, my shock when my counting was off. If 1+1= 2 than MY counting was totally off as I had whatever amount that birth had birthed….. this happened a few more times until one Spring everyone was released back into our woods from where they came. Another happy memory in the books and a massive clean up!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    November 2, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    • I have had 22 inhabiting my house at one time, and watching their antics was truly entertaining. Love these shy little guys. Fantastic that yours bred!

      November 2, 2018 at 12:49 pm

  18. Ellen Pysz

    Could it be a feeding area of sorts for the predator(s)? I am recalling collections of flying squirrel tails left on our porch by our cat, or cats. Would the predator catch them in a wider area, eat them, but bring the tails to this spot for some reason?

    November 2, 2018 at 2:15 pm

  19. Robyn Deveney

    Come now, surely you must know that flying squirrels shed their tails each fall before denning up for the winter? 😉
    Seriously, though, the cat theory is plausible. I hope they weren’t poisoned by D-con or something.

    November 2, 2018 at 2:45 pm

  20. Bunny Wescott

    About a decade ago we were tracking a fisher in the snow in Northeast Mass. and there was an extraneous mark with each set of tracks that we all analyzed to be a gray squirrel being carried along. We followed the trail for a half mile into the woods where we came upon a large deciduous tree in a clearing where the fresh tracks stopped at the foot of the trunk. So these flying squirrels could be being carried to a den area or favorite tree of the fisher to be devoured or stored. I know they move around to sleep in different cavities but they could be caching some in the area. Keep a watch on this particular site when the snow is on the ground and maybe we will learn more. The jury is still out for me.

    November 2, 2018 at 4:58 pm

  21. when i lived in the woods in western mass and allowed my housecats out at night there was one year when i found flying squirrel tail gifts every morning for seven mornings. by keeping them and comparing size it appeared to be a grouping of different ages, several generations. my theory then was that the cat had found the squirrels descent route from nest to ground and returned to ambush them every night, wiping out an entire extended family. so cats can do this, but they brought them home to eat. i like the theory that some wild critter caught then carried them up to a favorite eating spot, night after night.

    November 3, 2018 at 8:56 am

  22. Fascinating yet sad. To think these mysterious little night squirrels, which one rarely sees, we’re wiped out all at once (or within a few days), by a house cat, is worrisome. But hopefully there are more there in the woods who will soon reproduce.
    I agree, it’s best for wildlife, especially song birds, to keep cats indoors as much as possible.
    Mary, I thought our flying squirrels were gone from our house here. But just last week, 5AM one morning, Tim announced there was a “chipmunk” in the kitchen. Upon investigating I discovered an adorable flyer, sitting on my sketch books! Not sure how it got in, I was both thrilled and dismayed to see it! (Made me think of you!) 🙃
    Took about 5 min. for me to catch in a towel and release outside. Ugh! … back to sealing up the house.

    November 5, 2018 at 11:22 am

    • Oh, Susan! Wish I’d been there to see it with you! I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of one at my feeders this winter, but that’s probably as close as I’ll get. You know who to call if you resort to live-catching them! 🙂

      November 5, 2018 at 12:49 pm

  23. marc connelly

    I have come across a similar scene twice in all my wanderings. Once in the fall and was left to wonder, and a couple years ago during the winter, the telltale tracks of a fisher revealed in the snow. At least in the case I came across it all happened at the same time as indicated by the all- fresh tracks. I have often come across single tails left on the snow when following fisher. I guess they aren’t tasty… m connelly

    On Fri, Nov 2, 2018 at 7:53 AM Naturally Curious with Mary Holland wrote:

    > Mary Holland posted: “A discovery recently brought to my attention has > stumped this naturalist. What you are looking at is a collection of > Flying Squirrel tails lying within a 30-square-foot patch of ground > adjacent to a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. For several days in success” >

    November 8, 2018 at 11:27 pm

    • Fascinating to have proof of the predator!

      November 12, 2018 at 9:09 am

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