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Yes, Dorothy, some squirrels can fly, sort of

By Steve Vantreese

Ever since "The Wizard of Oz," we've taken a dim view of flying monkeys.

We're not so spooked by the notion of flying squirrels. Somehow that doesn't seem so creepy, they having no track record of working for wicked witches. But flying squirrels also sound just about as fictionalized as their airborne primate counterparts up there over the rainbow.

Yet, in the world of real fauna, indeed, flying squirrels are genuine mammals. What's more, they're here. They live nearby if not right around us.

The southern flying squirrel is listed as a rodent of common status throughout Kentucky and most of the eastern United States. He's rather a cousin of the ubiquitous gray squirrel that everybody sees and knows from constant experience.

However, it would be safe to say that few people throughout this region have any experience with flying squirrels.

Here's what they are and why you don't know them personally:

The southern flying squirrel is, at a glance, much like other squirrels hereabouts, just smaller. It's brownish-gray on upper body and white underneath, not unlike the gray squirrel. The flying squirrel is more miniature â “ only 10 to 11 inches in overall length, almost half of that in a flattened tail.

Unlike fictional flying monkeys, real flying squirrels don't have wings.

To be perfectly honest, flying squirrels don't fly in the same sense as winged creatures. They aren't bird-like â “ and, for that matter, not flying monkey-like. It would have been better to have named them gliding squirrels, because they do glide through thin air sort of like a furry Frisbee.

If you get a good look at one at rest, the flying squirrel will show itself to have a marginal flap of skin, all fully furred, that runs along its side. The skin flap, biologically identified as a patagium, extends from the back edge of its front legs to the forward side of its hind legs.

The flap makes the flying squirrel a sort of little rodent kite when it extends its front and rear limbs and puts tension on the skin. The stretched patagium doesn't stroke up and down like wings, but it catches air beneath and allows the critter to sail.

Ultimately, the aeronautical flap along the body saves the flying squirrel some walking/running as a pedestrian. In use, the flying squirrel will leap from a tree, flex its patagium taut and glide to another tree or to a place on the ground. Mammologists say the flight of the little squirrel is necessarily on a downward angle and the distance traveled hinges of the height of the launch, but they are known to glide for upwards of 30 yards.

The flying squirrel's lifestyle explains the main reason why they are rarely seen. Unlike his non-gliding cousins, the flying squirrel is nocturnal rather than diurnal. He is active by night and apparently rarely stirs in bright daylight.

There's a clue to that in the flying squirrel's physical make-up. The glider has big, dark eyes â “ considerably larger eyes than do gray squirrels or fox squirrels. The flying squirrels' eyeballs are built to provide operational vision in far less light.

My only known encounter with flying squirrels was an evening up a tree in the Land Between the Lakes. I was slow to come down from a deer hunting position in a tree stand and darkness had settled in around me. One or two flying squirrels started flitting around in the limbs before I began to descend.

Even though they are nocturnal, it's a little odd that we see little or no indication of flying squirrel presence when their reported range is supposed to be all over us. Some of that is further explained, however, by the fact that southern flying squirrels are strongly associated with hardwood forests.

Unlike some other species, these gliding rodents don't readily gravitate to suburbia. In places where most of the trees have been cleared out, flying squirrels find far less attraction. Hardwoods along property lines and the odd lawn oak tree here and there may draw some resident gray or fox squirrels, but flying squirrels, not so likely.

Flying squirrels are cavity nesters like their bigger cousin squirrels. Sometimes this does draw them into proximity â “ and conflict â “ with people in suburbia. In seeking out shelter, occasionally a flying squirrel will find its way into the attic of some human's home. When you can't come up with a woodpecker hole in a tree, maybe somebody's attic is the next best thing.

Having a family of flying squirrels flittering around above the ceiling might not be the worst thing that could happen to a homeowner, but all those bumps in the night â “ even little bumps â “ probably would be disconcerting. Nuisance animal trappers sometimes get calls to deal with that.

Chances are, however, if no flying squirrels move into your home, you may never be aware that, yes, they really exist and they even live nearby. If some endeavor of yours brings you to perch up in trees until it's good and dark, maybe there's some chance to meet one of the aviator rodents. But the odds are even long then.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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