Four species of tree squirrels occur in Ohio, and most people are familiar with three of them. Anyone who feeds birds probably knows fox, gray and red squirrels, all of which are expert feeder raiders.
Indeed, this larcenous trio is so adept at plundering bird feeders homeowners often engage in a battle of wits with the furry seed-stealers, which the squirrels frequently win.
At the end of the day, squirrels retire for the evening - or so it would seem. But darkness brings out our fourth squirrel species, the southern flying squirrel. These acrobatic little sprites can be common feeder visitors but often are overlooked, shielded as they are by the blackness of night.
If there are big trees around, even in suburban areas, chances are great flying squirrels are present.
A southern flying squirrel is an animal of great beauty. Impossibly large eyes, all the better to see in darkness, dominate the small, mousy head. Their silky fur is a lustrous gray-brown above, contrasting with the animal's snowy-white undersides.
It is the adaptations for "flying" that is truly eye-catching, though. A flying squirrel doesn't really fly; rather, it glides. Loose flaps of skin called patagium stretch between the legs and when snapped taut form a winglike membrane. When ready to parasail, the squirrel leaps from high in the tree, stretches its legs wide and glides like a furry dart for up to 150 feet.
As the airborne squirrel prepares to land, it flips its flat tail to a vertical position, which then becomes an airbrake.
Upon alighting, the squirrel invariably scurries to the other side of the trunk, in case an owl has followed it.
Measuring less than a foot long and weighing only 2 1/2 ounces, a flying squirrel is truly elfin. It would take 11 of them to equal the mass of a fox squirrel. What these bantamweights lack in size is more than made up for in speed and agility.
Watching these speedsters rocket around the branches of a big tree is a surreal experience. When at full tilt, a flying squirrel runs up, down, and sideways at velocities that leave an observer awestruck and wondering if the squirrel's paws are made of Velcro. The grand finale comes when the squirrel launches itself into space, sailing off into the dark.
In most regions that are well-forested, the flying squirrel is the most abundant of our squirrels, albeit the least commonly encountered. They are vital cogs in woodland ecology, scavenging scads of tree nuts and caching them.
Many squirrel-harvested acorns and other mast will be forgotten, the lost nuts destined to grow new trees. In turn, the squirrels serve as prey for predators such as owls and black rat snakes.
If you've got big trees in your yard, keep a sharp eye on your bird feeders after dark. Better yet, slather some crunchy peanut butter high up on a tree trunk - flying squirrels seem to find it irresistible.
Jim McCormac is a wildlife specialist with Ohio Division of Wildlife.