I woke to the sound of my cat’s tail thumping on the wooden floor. Illuminated by the light of a nearly full moon, he sat beside my bed, staring out of the glass door leading to the balcony.
I’m used to seeing my cats Bo and Arrow stationed by that door. On the other side, sitting on the wide railing of the small balcony, is a bird feeder — a little wooden house with room for seeds and suet. It attracts all sorts of birds … during the day.
The glowing screen of my cell phone read 3:30 a.m. — not a time for birds. So what was Bo watching so intently?
Snug under layers of quilts, I didn’t want to move, but my curiosity grew until I couldn’t help but climb out of the warmth of my bed and investigate. At first, I saw nothing. But as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I detected movement on the floor of the balcony.
Dead leaves blowing in the wind? It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if that was what had grabbed Bo’s attention. He chases string, after all.
But just in case it was something more than wind-blown foliage moving about on the deck, I switched on the balcony light. And to my surprise, sitting on the worn wood just outside the glass door was a flying squirrel.
I had never the species in person, but I had seen enough photos to identify it right away.
Flying squirrels are much smaller than the red and gray squirrels we Mainers see so often scurrying up tree trunks during the day. They’re even smaller than chipmunks (which are a type of squirrel, if you didn’t know). I’d say that flying squirrels are almost as small as white-footed mice. But unlike a mouse, the flying squirrel has a bushy tail and strong back legs, characteristic of all squirrels. It also has large black eyes, good for seeing in the dark of night, and flaps of skin between its front and back legs that allow it to glide through the air.
Flying squirrels don’t really fly. They simply stretch their legs out and soar through the air — like a person wearing a wingsuit. There are websites explaining the physics behind how this works, but essentially, the increased surface area created by the squirrel’s “wings” (called patagium, I’ve learned) increases lift and slows the squirrel’s descent, allowing it to cover more than 150 feet in a single glide.
Sitting by the door, I watched as the tiny squirrel picked its way through the fallen bird seed on the balcony, pausing to lift a prefered seed to its mouth with both front paws. Hunched in a sitting position, the squirrel’s loose skin formed little ripples along its sides. While most of its body was a dull grey-brown, its “wings” and stomach were light — almost pure white.
Either it couldn’t see the cat and me sitting on the other side of the glass, or it simply didn’t care. It just continued foraging a couple feet from us.
After taking a few photos — most of them blurry due to slow exposure in low light — I dragged my husband Derek out of bed to see the squirrel, then flipped off the balcony light and we both returned to bed.
I was just drifting off to sleep when a loud thud startled me awake once more.
Clinging to the window screen beside the balcony was the flying squirrel, its silhouette standing out clearly against the moonlit forest.
Apparently, the squirrel had found a good landing pad.
Once more, I flipped on the outdoor light, hoping to photograph the squirrel poised on the screen. But my cat Bo got there first and swatted at the window, which in turn scared the squirrel. I watched as the it jumped onto the balcony rail, then launched into the air and glided, legs outstretched, to a nearby tree. As soon as it landed, it started to climb, moving around and up the trunk in a corkscrew pattern (a natural maneuver to evade predators, according to the National Wildlife Federation). It then ran out onto a branch and launched into the air, disappearing into the woods.
I went back to bed.
But that wasn’t the last time I saw the flying squirrel. It returns nightly, as far as I can tell. Often I flip on the balcony light for just a moment to say “hello” before bed.
Seeing an animal in person often makes me want to learn more about it. So I’ve done a little research.
Apparently, flying squirrels aren’t at all uncommon in Maine. People just don’t see them often because they’re only active at night. In fact, flying squirrels are the only type of squirrels that are nocturnal. All other members of the squirrel family are diurnal — active during the day, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
And get this: there are more than 350 species of squirrels worldwide! I never would have guessed.
Among those species are several different species of “flying squirrels,” but in North America, we have just two of those species: the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) and the slightly smaller southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans). Maine is one of the few states that is home to both.
I don’t know which of the two species is visiting my bird feeder, but that doesn’t really bother me. I’m simply excited that I’m helping another resident animal through the winter.