Surprise occupant of GF bird house turns out to be flying squirrel“I was waiting for the wrens to show up, and I looked up, and here’s a juvenile flying squirrel coming out of the wren house.”
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
Gary Urness was sitting in the backyard of his Grand Forks home one evening a couple of weeks back when he noticed an unexpected visitor peeking from the opening of a wren house.
“I was waiting for the wrens to show up, and I looked up, and here’s a juvenile flying squirrel coming out of the wren house,” Urness said.
Urness, who lives near UND in the vicinity of University Avenue and Columbia Road, said he occasionally sees adult flying squirrels at night gliding between the huge trees that line the streets.
But the little guy — or gal — peeking from the wren house was a first.
“I thought, ‘What the heck is that?’” Urness said.
The little squirrel didn’t seem the least bit afraid and was still surveying the surroundings when Urness returned from the house with his camera. The 35mm Minolta also has a big zoom lens, so Urness was able to take several close-up shots. At closest, he was within a few feet of the little critter, which had huge eyes and large ears adapted to getting around after dark, when flying squirrels are most active.
A call to Bob Seabloom confirmed the flying squirrel’s identity. A retired professor, Seabloom taught mammalogy at UND for 35 years and is working on a book about the mammals of North Dakota.
One look at Urness’s photo was all he needed to see.
“That’s a flying squirrel — no question about that,” Seabloom said. “I recognize the face. I know it well.”
According to Seabloom, flying squirrel sightings aren’t a regular occurrence in Grand Forks, but the area definitely holds a population. There are two species of flying squirrel — northern and southern — and the northern species in this area is a bit larger than its southern counterpart, Seabloom said.
Seabloom said he couldn’t comment on their abundance, but one of the earliest documented reports of flying squirrels in the area dates back to 1926, he said.
“They’ve undoubtedly gotten into North Dakota following the river system,” he said. “They come up into the floodplain forest. Sometimes, way out on the prairie, you wonder how, but the river systems go hundreds of miles and are avenues for forest-dwelling animals.
“They’re more common than people realize but because they’re so nocturnal, you never see them.”
Where to look
Seabloom said the best place to encounter a flying squirrel is anywhere with large trees — especially large trees with cavities that provide shelter for the squirrels.
The area where Urness lives near UND certainly meets that requirement.
“They pop up all over the state where there are large trees, and I know there have been fair numbers of reports in the Riverside Park area,” Seabloom said.
And yes, he adds, they sometimes end up in places such as the wren house in Urness’s yard. The typical litter size is two to six, and Seabloom estimates the squirrel in the wren house probably was born in April.
“I expect the adults had a litter in there, and it’s possible that there was more than one,” Seabloom said. “I can’t say for sure, but I expect that’s probably the situation — it decided this was a good place to build a nest and have its young.”
Made to sail
Look at the whole animal — instead of just the head, like the squirrel peeking from the wren house — and you’ll see a membrane between the front legs and the hind legs.
Perfect for gliding, in other words.
“When they jump from tree to tree, they spread them out, and it acts like a hang glider,” Seabloom said. “Those membranes aid in sailing from one tree to the next, and their tail is very fluffy, and the hairs stick out on the side, and that aids in flight, too. They’re pretty well adapted to flying.
“They glide for 125 feet.”
Slightly smaller than a red squirrel, flying squirrels also are adapted to surviving cold northern winters. They don’t hibernate, Seabloom said, but they’ll hole up in tree cavities during extreme cold and live on food supplies they’ve stored. That can be anything from birds’ eggs to fungi, he said.
Urness, who hasn’t seen the young flying squirrel since the recent encounter — it’s probably flown the coop, so to speak — said he decided to name the critter “Jessie” in honor of a friend who saw the photo and asked if he’d named it.
“I was more surprised than anybody when I saw this thing,” Urness said. “I fully expected to see a wren.”
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.