Natural Connections: The Night Gliders

The long, flat tail of a northern flying squirrels is used like a brake to facilitate precise and graceful landings. Photo by Larry Master, USFWS.

Natural Connections: The Night Gliders

Danielle Spak participated in my recent Natural Connections Writing Workshop. She graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during that class. – Emily Stone

A note from Danielle: Connecting with nature has been a central theme in my life throughout 2022. This spring, I planted my very first garden and deepened my knowledge of the plant world. Hiking portions of the Ice Age Trail and foraging for wild edibles dominated my summer. I completed my Master Naturalist training at the beautiful Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary in Sarona in August. Attending the Natural Connections Writing Workshop with Emily Stone this October was an incredible learning opportunity that taught me how to combine my passions for writing and nature and craft this essay on a particular critter I adore!

The flash of a white, furry belly soars over my head. It is luminous against the backdrop of the nighttime sky. I duck as another small form soars past me with all four legs extended in flight, like a tiny caped superhero. A shrill, high-pitched warning squeak blasts from the pine tree beside me. As a heavy cloak of black velvet envelopes the evening and I round the last bend of my walk, the flying squirrels descend and commence their nightly plunder of my bird feeders.

Contrary to what their name suggests, flying squirrels don't fly: they glide. This action is called volplaning, and if rodents had superpowers, this would be the flying squirrel’s. These little "P.M. Paratroopers" have a loose flap of skin between their front and hind legs called a patagium that allows them to glide through the air, sometimes more than 150 feet!

They also have a small cartilaginous projection on the wrist, called a styliform process, that helps them widen the extension of the patagium and enhance their flight. As if these aerial adaptations weren’t fascinating enough, flying squirrels also have a flattened tail that is used as a brake, allowing the squirrel to slow down for a precise and graceful landing. Their huge, saucer-like eyes facilitate night vision.

Before moving to the remote woods of northern Wisconsin, I had never seen a flying squirrel. Apparently, I am not alone. According to the DNR, the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) is a Special Concern species in Wisconsin, and sightings are relatively rare. Their nocturnal nature heightens the challenge of observing one up close.

This summer, though, once I adopted a new ritual of an "after-dark walk" on the trails around my home, an entirely new universe revealed itself to me. One that is vibrant, active, and alive while the rest of the world slumbers.

There is a nocturnal symphony that accompanies the pulse of nature when the Sun goes down: the yipping excitement of the neighborhood coyote pack; the haunting hoots of the barred owls that station themselves around our woodshed, waiting for the misstep of an unfortunate mouse; the delicate, ballet-like stepping of deer in the high grass of the field before they bed down; the high-frequency staccato chirps of the flying squirrels as they launch themselves from the tall pines and effortlessly scale the side of the silo.

These nightly observances connect me to the circadian rhythm of wildlife.

Although the flying squirrels drain my birdfeeders with vacuum-like efficiency each night, I cannot help but cherish these charismatic, round-eyed critters and feel some degree of stewardship for them, especially as the season transitions into winter.

Flying squirrels do not hibernate. Instead, they reduce their metabolic rate and body temperature to conserve energy; a physiological state called torpor. And, as if these cartoonish little rodents couldn't get any more adorable, they also snuggle together in small groups called “cuddle puddles” to keep warm in cold weather. So, who is to blame me for occasionally leaving small treats of fatty nuts and dried fruit out for them? 

Being in darkness is not the preferred state of most humans. We rely so heavily on our sense of sight to safely navigate that darkness is often the catalyst for feelings of vulnerability and fear. I am in awe of the animals who embrace the dark and have adapted to survive when the veil of day melts into night. They have taught me that there is so much to “see” in the world around us in the absence of light.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.

Last Update: Nov 09, 2022 1:43 pm CST

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