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Flying Squirrels

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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Fisher Dines On Two Flying Squirrels

3-1-18 fisher scat and flying squirrel tails 049A3138 (1)Although Coyote tracks led me to this kill site, the Coyote was only inspecting the remains of two Flying Squirrels. Fisher tracks and scat confirmed that it was the predator.

Deciphering the story in the snow was possible through a familiarity with certain details of both the predator and prey. A Flying Squirrel’s tail is distinctively flattened, and the fur on it is very light and silky. There is no mistaking it for any other animal’s. (This would be difficult to discern from a photograph!) One entire squirrel’s tail was in a depression, where the squirrel had unsuccessfully sought shelter in a tunnel it had started to dig. The second tail had been ripped into bits and pieces. The Fisher claimed its kill and/or territory by depositing its characteristically small, twisted, pointed scat at the kill site. (Not an uncommon practice of many predators.)  Always fun to be able to piece together some of the drama that occurs nightly in our woods and fields.

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Gray Squirrel Dreys

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With most deciduous trees having lost their leaves, squirrel nests, or dreys, are more noticeable. Red Squirrels, Eastern Gray Squirrels and Flying Squirrels all build dreys. Those of the Red Squirrel are round, grassy balls, 8” – 10” in diameter. In contrast, Gray Squirrel nests are usually larger and made of sticks and leaves. Flying Squirrel dreys are so high that they are rarely observed.

The dreys most commonly seen are made by Gray Squirrels. Usually 30 or more feet high, these shelters are typically built near the main trunk of the tree, in a crotch where several small branches meet, or on a strong, thick limb. Construction takes place in the summer or early fall, before trees have formed the abcission layers that cause leaves to separate and fall from branches. Therefore, the leaves on a drey’s branches tend to remain for quite some time, forming an effective water-shedding outer layer.

Branches are loosely woven into a foot-wide hollow sphere. The drey is lined with insulating grass, moss, leaves, and shredded bark. Usually there is one entrance/exit hole, facing the trunk (so as to keep rain out). Often squirrels build two dreys, giving themselves another shelter option should one nest be disturbed by a predator or overrun with parasites.

A drey is usually inhabited by one squirrel, but two are known to occupy a single drey in order to keep warm in the winter. Gray Squirrels give birth in late winter and again in the summer. A more protective tree cavity usually serves as a nursery in the winter, and the drey in summer. The average drey is only used for a year or two before it is abandoned.


Barred Owl Parents Providing Fledglings With Food

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Young Barred Owls are fed from the time they hatch (four to six weeks old) until late summer or early fall, months after they have fledged and long after they are capable of flight. When first out of the nest, the fledglings cannot fly, and thus are totally dependent upon their parents’ continued delivery of prey. The fledged young initially stay near one another and the nest site. The parents continue to feed them, and as the young become more mobile they slowly move away from the nest tree. Flight is attempted between the ages of 12 and 15 weeks. The first attempts are, as you would imagine, rather awkward, but as their wings strengthen, the young owls’ flying skills improve. Even so, the parents continue to feed them through the summer and often into the fall, when prey deliveries slow down and eventually cease, forcing the young to disperse. (Photo: Recently-fledged Barred Owl chick eyeing the Flying Squirrel its parent is delivering.)

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Check Your Bird Feeder Before Heading To Bed

1-30-17-flying-squirrel-img_0397If you feed birds, you might want to glance at your feeders on your way to bed at night. With luck, you may encounter a Northern or Southern Flying Squirrel, or a swinging feeder indicating the recent departure of one. These nocturnal rodents remain active all year and often take advantage of the ample supply of food that bird feeders provide. Flying squirrels often refurbish abandoned tree cavity nests of birds and squirrels for winter use. During very cold weather they stay in these nests for prolonged periods, often huddling with several other flying squirrels. The relative warmth of this winter means the chances of seeing a “flying” night visitor at your feeder are greatly increased.

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Nest Box Residents : Out With The Old, In With the New

3-25-16  mouse nest in bluebird box by Jim LafleyDSC00362 (2)In order to prevent disease or the passing on of parasites, it is a good idea to clean out nest boxes after they’ve been occupied.  In the fall, after the last brood of eastern bluebirds or tree swallows has flown the coop, many nest box owners often clean them out in preparation for the next summer’s residents, but some wait until spring.  This habit of waiting provides white-footed and deer mice (and occasionally flying squirrels) with a ready-made winter shelter and/or larder.

Feathers incorporated into the pictured grass nest indicate that tree swallows once occupied this nest box.  After the last of the avian nestlings had fledged, mice moved into the box.  After constructing a roof over the nest, the mice succeeded in renovating the former bird nursery into a winter mouse house.  The remaining space inside the box served as a larder for nearby high-bush cranberries.

Unfortunately for the mice, but fortunately for the swallows or bluebirds that will reside here this summer, the responsible nest box owner dutifully cleaned out the nest box this spring, in accordance with avian-mammalian timeshare policies.  (Thanks to Jim Lafley for the use of his photo.)

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Red Squirrels & Sugar Maples

2-20-15 red squirrel2 IMG_7851We’re approaching what is often a very stressful time of year for many animals, including red squirrels. In the fall they feed on all kinds of conifer seeds, mushrooms, insects, nuts and the many fruits and berries that are available. They also have caches of cones, which they turn to once there is a scarcity of food elsewhere.

Once these caches are used up, usually by late winter or early spring, red squirrels turn to sugar maples for nutrients. Their timing is perfect, for this is when sap is starting to be drawn up from the roots of trees. Red squirrels are known to harvest this sap by making single bites into the tree with their incisors. These bites go deep enough to tap into the tree’s xylem tissue, which is where the sap is flowing. The puncture causes the sap to flow out of the tree, but the squirrel delays its gratification. It leaves and returns later to lick up the sugary residue that remains on the branch after most of the water has evaporated from the sap.

Not only do red squirrels help themselves to sugar maple sap, but they have developed a taste for the buds, and later in the spring, the flowers, of both red and sugar maples. Red squirrels are not the only culprits – gray squirrels and flying squirrels also make short work of buds and flowers from these trees.

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