Nature Manitoba is pleased to be giving away a copy of the book Chasing Nature: an ecologist's lifetime of adventures and observations, courtesy of author, Robert Wrigley. Below is one of the short stories you will find in the book as well as a link to enter for a chance to win a free copy. Enjoy!
HOW TO CATCH A FLYING SQUIRREL
Excerpt from Robert Wrigley's new book entitled; "Chasing Nature: An Ecologist's Lifetime of Adventures and Observations."
While I was attending the University of Illinois, a fellow student asked me if I would assist him in capturing live specimens of the Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans) for his thesis experiment. Always pleased to have an excuse to head out into the field, I gladly agreed to his request, and then enquired what he expected of me. My experience in capturing the larger Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) in southern Quebec was with rat traps nailed to fallen trees, where scratch marks on the bark had revealed their presence. My friend just answered to be patient and he would show me his technique, using a baseball bat and a fishing net. I was intrigued.
The following Saturday, we travelled to a mature oak-hickory woodland near Urbana, and began searching for trees with a hole situated high up in the trunk. We soon found one, and my friend proceeded to whack the tree with his bat, using considerable force. To my astonishment, a flying squirrel shot out the hole and made its escape with a beautiful glide to the base of an adjacent tree trunk, about 15 m away. The squirrel then scampered up into the tree canopy where we lost sight of it. He marked both trees with red tape, and then we continued searching for other squirrel holes. By late afternoon we had located and marked six sites in the same manner.
Returning the next day, my friend handed me the bat and instructed me to strike the tree when he gave me a signal, and then he hid behind the landing tree, with his fish net in hand. Hearing his whistle, I did my best rendition of a Mickey Mantle swing of the bat, and right on cue, the same squirrel departed on its long glide to its traditional landing spot. I called out that our quarry was in the air, and my friend jumped out at the last second and snared the squirrel in mid-air, as easily as if he were catching a butterfly. So simple a method, but it worked perfectly. No wonder I find field work so exciting and enjoyable.
I kept one flying squirrel in the mammalogy lab at the University to observe its behaviour, and it soon became quite tame, unlike a captive Red Squirrel which remained so wild that I finally released it. The flying squirrel liked to perch on my shoulder, and when someone approached, it bobbed its head sideways quickly, back and forth, judging the distance with its large black eyes. Then, as if it had springs in its legs, it leapt in a graceful arc to land on the chest of the other person, touching down as lightly as a feather, whereupon it ran up to the person’s shoulder, ready for its next jump. One other thing struck me about my little pet. As soon as it sat in my palm, I could feel a rapid buildup of warmth (actually coming from my hand), so excellent was its dense insulating fur coat. I marvelled at its flattened, feather-like tail, which it used to maintain lift when gliding, dodge between branches, and to stall into a vertical position on landing. When several years later it finally died of old age, I prepared its skin and skeleton, and deposited them in the research collection of the Manitoba Museum. It will reside there in a tray for centuries, silent testament to the wonderful adaptations of this beautiful species.
Above: Trying to catch a flying squirrel (cartoon by Rob Gillespie)
From then on, I had a ‘soft spot’ for flying squirrels. I enjoyed watching the larger Northern Flying Squirrel gliding among the trees and landing on the roof of the Manitoba Naturalists' cabin at Victoria Beach in Manitoba. A flashlight beam did not seem to bother them in the least, and so my wife Gail, two young sons Mark and Rob, and I found it fascinating to observe their antics on many a dark evening. Since flying squirrels are nocturnal, people are completely unaware that they occur regularly in parks and wooded areas near their homes. While populations of the Southern Flying Squirrel are secure in the United States, those in the Carolinian Forest region of southern Ontario (its main range in Canada) has now been rated as “Special Concern,’ due to over 80% loss of its habitat from agriculture and development.
One other incident about the Northern Flying Squirrel I found intriguing. A trapper from northern Manitoba gave me a dead specimen that he had caught in his trapline, and when I skinned it to prepare a museum specimen, I found a large (25 mm) and very sharp winter bud of a Balsam Popular lying between the soft skin and chest muscles. The squirrel must have impaled itself while landing on a branch, and the needle-sharp bud imbedded itself inside its body. Remarkably, the injury had healed perfectly, with no sign of infection or irritation. Even the bud appeared remarkably fresh. It then occurred to me that poplars produce a sticky balsam resin (sometimes referred to as ‘Balm-of-Gilead’), which is known for its antiseptic properties; perhaps the reason that the resin-coated bud did not result in an infection and subsequent death of the squirrel. An ointment made from Balsam Poplar winter buds has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions and chest congestion, and to reduce pain.