When a Mess is a Nest

Gray squirrel on a tree branch.

[Reprint from November 2010]

Winter winds have blown nearly all the remaining leaves to the ground. They lie tossed and trampled on the ground like post-holiday parade confetti. The hyperbole of autumn reds and oranges and yellows is long gone, replaced by browns, taupes, and grays.

But bare boughs and blue skies offer the perfect opportunity to pull back that leafy curtain for a peek “behind the scenes.” All you need to do is step outside… and make the leap from two dimensions into 3D.

Sure, we all know it’s a three-dimensional world, but with the exception of a flight of stairs now and then human days are usually spent in a forward-backward-left-right routine. Skeptical? Spend even a few minutes watching a gray or fox squirrel ricochet between branches and you’re guaranteed to feel like your days are spent in Flatland.

Unlike many mammals, squirrels make it easy for wildlife watchers. They’re not shy, they’re active during the day, and much of their activity occurs within the visual field between our feet and our face. Of course, while we keep our feet planted firmly on the ground squirrels do not, and when they bolt up the bole into dense foliage they seem to disappear like a Santa up a chimney. What good does it do to look up?

Dreys in a silver maple

Two dreys in a silver maple (Photo: KJ Lindsey, CCL 2.0)

In parts of the country that have both squirrels and seasons when trees go au naturel, craning one’s neck can be more rewarding during the winter months. That’s why I’m trying to cultivate a new habit during walks with my terrier-boy, Dash. Whenever I catch myself contemplating my shoes, which is often, I lift my eyes and scan the trees, starting at about the same level as the roof of a two-story house. Try it yourself. See those seemingly accidental wads of leaves and twigs, about the size of a football, caught in the gutters formed by branches? Those are squirrel nests, also known as dreys.

Squirrels aren’t as famous for their engineering skills as are beavers but maybe they should be.  It can’t be easy to build 20 feet or more above the ground on a foundation that sways with every breeze. Construction begins with a platform of woven twigs, followed by a spherical framework secured to the base. Leaves, paper, and moss are used to fill in the gaps and create a snug, weatherproof abode with two doorways—a main entrance and a hidden escape hatch. The exterior may look a little rustic but the interior décor is luxurious. Lined with fur, feathers, and other cozy furnishings, it’s the perfect cocoon for a cold winter’s night.

Closeup of a drey

Close up of a drey (© N. Hawekotte, used with permission)

Squirrels don’t hibernate but they do lie low during inclement weather. When the mercury drops or the snow starts to fly, a group of females may crowd into a single drey, kind of like a slumber party without the pajamas, pizza, and prank phone calls.

As spring approaches, the dreys serve a dual purpose as nurseries for the new crop of infants. I realize not everyone is a tree squirrel fan, but if you’re an aficionado and want the scoop on where to enjoy watching for youngsters when they venture out to explore the world and learn how to navigate in every direction, now’s the time to make note of which trees are littered with messy nests.

Just think 3D… without the funny glasses.

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© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.

Hide and seek

meadow vole by manual crank

Meadow voles are sometimes referred to as mice and moles, but there is a difference (photo: Leo Papandreou, Creative Commons license)

[I’m attending a faculty retreat in a remote location this week so I decided to run this reprint from 2011. I’ll be back with new Next-Door Nature soon!]

Winter weekend mornings are perfect for catching a little extra shut-eye, but my fur-covered drill sergeant thinks it’s important to rise and shine on schedule, seven days a week. I can’t seem to dissuade him from this mindset.

There’s a snooze button on clock radios and even on my iPhone, but wire-haired fox terriers don’t come with that feature, as either standard or optional equipment. Snug in my blanket burrow, my sympathy for small, ground-dwelling creatures is renewed every time Dash excavates me from beneath the covers and insists, “GET UP! It’s time to OPEN YOUR EYES!!”

Once we’re wrapped in an appropriate number of layers and out the door he begins to search in earnest for that one perfect piece of real estate on which to make his mark. This takes some time—Dash has strong feelings about the importance of a job well-done. As we mosey along I often find myself absent-mindedly scanning the terrain as well (although I use my eyes instead of my nose, and with a different objective).

We had slightly warmer temperatures in southwestern Virginia this past weekend so there was more wildlife activity than when the mercury huddled near zero, and I noticed etchings in the dun-colored grass near our usual pathway.

meadow vole surface runway system 1

At first I thought the scribbles were the result of melting ice, but somehow that didn’t feel right. I took a closer look…

close up of meadow vole surface runway system

…and began to develop a hypothesis:  meadow voles. But if a vole was the engineer behind this winding road, where was the signature grassy-igloo nest?

meadow vole nestAha—I knew it! And not just one… there was a second nest.  I could read what had happened as if a book lay open before me. A blanket of white stuff builds up in the shadows and becomes a snowy fortress for an intrepid rodent willing to do a little mining. Food and building materials close at hand, there’s no need to venture out into the outside world of hungry predators.

Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) claim many an alias: meadow mice, field mice, round moles, meadow moles. They are neither moles nor mice, but they are more closely related to the latter than the former. Moles are insectivores. Mice and voles are rodents. Unsurprisingly, then, there are physical similarities. Voles have shorter legs and tails than mice, but it’s dentition—their teeth—that caused mammalogists to set them apart from others gnawers. The upper cheek tooth row is relatively long compared to other rodents, and the third premolar has some distinguishing characteristics. Yeah, I realize that’s an observation that borders on nit-picking but taxonomists are a crowd that believes the key to life is in the details.

As soon as Dash finished his business, I dropped him off back home so I could take a closer look—you can’t sneak up on a rodent with an inquisitive terrier in tow. Smartphone in hand, I examined the carefully arranged, perfectly spherical, palm-sized mound of dried grass and wondered… had the nest become a nursery? Had the vole family tree added another branch? I listened carefully, but if a creature was stirring it wasn’t loud enough to register against my eardrums. The weather forecast calls for a general warming trend but I wondered… would the nest prove warm enough without its outer ice-cave shell?

meadow vole runway and nest Who was I kidding? I’m a woman of the natural world and I could see the writing on the sod. What had once been a well-camouflaged hideaway now looked like a treasure map for predators. If the other companion canines in our neighborhood overlooked these nests while on their quest for bladder relief, it’s unlikely the raccoons, opossums, and even tree squirrels in the woods just beyond the pavement would be so clueless.

I’m a tender-hearted soul, I’ll admit. I’m also a biologist and, therefore, an equal-opportunity empathizer. I hate to think of vulnerable pink babies being gobbled down, but I wouldn’t like to see a starving raccoon either. Some creatures die so other may live. It’s the way of this world.

But while they are alive, in the course of going about the business of living, voles make a unique if fleeting mark on the world that can be discovered and appreciated by anyone who will open her eyes.

Thank you, Drill Sergeant Dash, sir!

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

Stick in the mud

red-eared slider by Charles Lam cc

[This reprint was originally published on January 14, 2012.] 

Shorter days and Jack Frost nipping at your nose means it’s the start of the serious season, filled with snowplows, tire chains, and 10-pound sacks of clay litter that will never feel a kitty’s caress.  In many parts of the northern hemisphere, it’s a long slog through snow, sleet, and freezing rain to get from December to daffodils.

Understandably, we look to Nature for role models. Native people aren’t unique in their ability to draw a connection between human and non-human animals—Madison Avenue is especially canny at choosing charismatic creatures to impersonate our enviable and endearing (or at least humorous) characteristics.  Particularly at this time of year, when mercury can’t seem to bootstrap its way past 32°F, you’ll find a lot of furry sales reps pitching warm and cozy wares in magazines and newspapers, on television and online. I assume the general idea behind this trend is that raw, gray days bring out the hibernator in all of us mammals.

Not to split hairs, but that’s not technically correct. Humans don’t hibernate, but we do go through some behavioral changes at this time of year, at least so far as jobs, school, and the other routines and rituals of modern life allow. times square blizzard by Asterio Tecson ccFunny, how those cold weather coping strategies make humans look strangely reptilian. Just watch—next time the Weather Channel predicts a cold front, with or without a “wintery mix,” check out all the necks and heads tucked back into Gortex shells, peeking out from fleece hoodies, swaths of scarves, and turned up coat collars as they hunch toward the warmth of home. Do you think they look more like bears, or turtles?

Now, there’s a bit of Class warfare at play here because homeothermic (body temperature largely uninfluenced by the surrounding environmental) hominid mammals aren’t often flattered by comparisons to scaly, poikilothermic (body temperature influence by the surrounding environment) cold-bloods. Knowing this, and well aware that you, dear reader, will read my claim with considerable skepticism, I’ve got an example ready to back me up: a familiar and easily identifiable semi-aquatic turtle called the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).Even nature neophytes will immediately recognize this species, a common resident of lakes and ponds in urban and suburban parks, as well as pet stores. Shell, legs, head and tail are inscribed with stripes and nested ovals of green and yellow, the “elegant script” referenced in its Latin name (although the vibrant colors do tend to fade somewhat with age and a thick coat of algae).

The red “ear” on either side of the head distinguishes the slider from all other North American turtle species and allows for a quick and definitive ID as they sunbathe on stones and logs. “Quick” being the operative word here; sliders don’t hear well, but they are very sensitive to vibrations that alert them to the presence of potential predators, and they can slip back into the safety of the water with surprising speed.

In the wild, the slider’s life cycle begins with courtship and mating as early as March or as late as July, depending on the region and the weather. Subsequently, the female heads for dry land to deposit a clutch of eggs, excavating with her hind legs to create a nest in the soil. Then she turns for home with nary a backward glance, and the turtles-to-be she leaves behind are on their own from that point forward. Two or three months later, depending on the average ambient temperature, hatchlings emerge from the nest and set out to conquer the world.

Most of them don’t make it past the first year—such is Testudine life… and death. Those who live to see their 2nd birthday, however, can reasonably expect a couple decades of celebrations, getting bigger with each passing year (females reach 10-13 in (25-33 cm), while males max out at 8-10 in (20-25 cm)).

In addition to predation, freezing temperatures are one of the biggest barriers to longevity that young turtles must navigate in the wild (HA! I’ll bet you thought I’d lost my original train of thought on winter and hibernation, didn’t you?).  No one expects to see a slider in a snowstorm, so it’s natural to assume they use sleep as a survival strategy.  Hey, it works for two of the most diverse Orders on Earth—Chiroptera (bats) and Rodentia (rodents)—so why not?sunning r-eared sliders by Alan Vernon ccBut reptiles take a different road.

Brumation is a period of decreased activity, but it doesn’t involve the extreme metabolic changes that occur during hibernation. ‘Round about October, as temperatures dip below 50°F, sliders begin to settle in at the bottom of their preferred body of water, or in some cases under stream banks and tree stumps, and just… hang out. They’re less social, they move a little more slowly, sleep a little later, watch more television (I’m sure there must be a turtle equivalent), and generally feel lethargic and unmotivated. On warmer days, they’ll drag themselves up from the depths to stretch their limbs, have some lunch, and catch some rays with a few friends… but as soon as old Sol goes into hiding they follow suit, retreating into their shells to become stick-in-the-muds until spring.

Social commentators have come up with any number of marketable catch phrases to describe the human desire to turn our backs on a less than hospitable world—cocooning, burrowing, vegging out, even hibernating. The admen (and women) may argue that it doesn’t have the same sizzle, but what we’re really talking about here is brumating.

Sound like anyone you know?

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Charles Lam, Asterio Tecson, Jim, the PhotographerAlan Vernon, and Jack Wolf.

Runner-up

Two male turkeys audition but fail to impress the judge (Photo: Teddy Llovet, Creative Commons license)

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[An alternative to the trussed and roasted turkeys featured as the unlucky guests of honor on tables across the U.S. this week, reprinted from November 2012.]

I don’t know what American grade school kids are being taught these days—I left Oakville Elementary a couple of decades ago (okay, fine—several decades ago) and since I haven’t had kids of my own I don’t have access to 21st century homework assignments. But I’ll go out on a limb here and bet that most of them know the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) won the 1782 version of American Idol, and that it did so by edging out celebrity judge Benjamin Franklin’s favorite contestant, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

That long-ago contest had little in common with the popular modern day version of reality TV. For one thing, neither bird has great pipes. Citizens were never asked to call or text in their votes. Also, the bald eagle has held on to national fame longer than fellow white-headed winner Taylor Hicks, while the turkey hasn’t exactly proven the voters wrong by, say, winning an Academy Award, Jennifer Hudson-style.

On the other hand, we don’t set aside a day each November (or any month, for that matter) on which the eagle takes center stage.  So in honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to briefly sing the praises of the runner-up… and not just as the star performer at a holiday dinner.

Shortly after Congress immortalized the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, Franklin shared his disappointment and misgivings over their choice in a letter to his daughter. Given the sparse pelt on his own pate, one might expect ol’ Ben would view the bald eagle as a kindred spirit, or at least harbor a bit of sympathy. Instead, his criticism was as harsh as any doled out by Simon Cowell, describing our new national symbol as “a Bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his Living honestly,” preferring to sup on rotting fish or, worse yet, stealing fresh seafood from more industrious raptors like the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). What’s more, Ben argued the eagle is cowardly, evidenced by how easily it can be driven away by much smaller birds defending their nests and offspring. Not exactly the role model image our fledgling country hoped to cultivate.

The turkey, according to Franklin, is “in Comparison a much more respectable bird,” a “true original Native of America” and a “Bird of Courage” who “would not hesitate to attack” any invader and defend his home turf.

This description might not square with your expectations after years of holiday stories featuring dim-witted, less than inspiring  Butterballs-to-be but the domestic turkey is but a pale and passive imitation of the real-deal.

Wild tom turkeys (as the males are called) will most definitely defend their breeding territory against potential rivals. Large and heavy, they are unexpectedly agile flyers, aggressive fighters, social, sometimes playful, intelligent, and adaptive.  To my knowledge they’ve never been accused of theft or caught dining on carrion (their omnivorous diet consists primarily of acorns and other nuts, seeds, fruit, buds and leaves, insects and the occasional small reptile or amphibian).

As far as moral character goes… well, you know rock stars. Toms strut their stuff in a flamboyant palette of iridescent red, green, purple, copper, bronze, and gold feathers worthy of Adam Lambert. No piercings or tattoos, but oozing cool with a Beat-worthy statement beard of stiff bristles starting just above the wishbone, wattles (flesh hanging from the head and/or neck), caruncles (fleshy growths on the head), snoods (long fleshy object draped across a tom’s beak), spurs and other body art. Their ladies, in keeping with general avian fashion trends, tend to be more conservatively dressed but they can strut like a runway model  when warranted, complete with long legs and outlandish makeup. Out of the spotlight, turkey hens are attentive mothers to their precocial offspring, in contrast to the menfolk, who are polygamous absentee fathers.

(Male bald eagles, it must be said, are actively involved in their children’s upbringing; given his own reputation, Ben might have been well served to heed the old saying about people who live in glass houses before he cast the first stone.)

Like the bald eagle, wild turkeys experienced a perilous decline in their numbers during in the last century, due to overhunting and habitat loss (rather than DDT exposure, as was the case for so many of our birds of prey).  Game agencies took action to protect the species and have been successful in helping the population rebound. So much so, in fact, that turkeys have not only returned to rural fields, pastures, and woodlands but have begun to tour in many major metropolitan areas as well.  In some parts of the country spotting a flock of wild turkeys foraging near a highway, hanging out downtown, or feasting at a backyard bird feeder is no longer a novelty.

That means a growing number of Americans now have a ticket to see  this national treasure up close and personal more than once a year, and at venues other than a serving platter.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Teddy Llovet (cover); keeva999 (turkey in flight); Mic Stolz (plumage); Peter Patau (men).

Treehuggers

I’ve been called a treehugger more than once in my life, and while I know the comments weren’t intended as such, I always take them as compliments. As a sobriquet it’s both true and false: true, because I do spontaneously hug exceptionally handsome or venerable trees; and false, because compared to the practiced professionals who scamper up and down tree boles every waking hour of their lives, my embraces are too amateurish to qualify as authentic hugging.

Sure, as a kid I would climb trees and hang from the larger limbs by my knees. We had several sturdy silver maples in our yard and I loved spending time in these leafy hideouts. But there’s more to being a treehugger than practice. I simply don’t have the body to become world-class, or even marginally proficient. To compete with the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in my neighborhood, whose arboreal acrobatics would make a Cirque du Soleil gymnast green with envy, I would need a significantly different anatomy.

For example, I would need to lose enough weight (and height) to allow the friction created by the pressure of my paws gripping a small branch to overpower gravity’s bullying attempts to push me rudely onto the ground.

A better sense of balance would also be necessary if I were to have any success as a legitimate treehugger. I’m not saying I trip over myself on a daily basis but, as friends and family can attest, when I do fall it’s Charlie-Brown spectacular… and usually on my face.

Tree squirrels, in comparison, are masters at controlling their center of gravity. This can be attributed, at least in part, because they can hold on equally well with both hands and feet.  Here again I’m disadvantaged, and I place full blame on evolution, my DNA, and whichever hominid ancestors of mine, after climbing down from a tree on an African savannah, decided that standing upright and using feet almost exclusively for the precarious task of bipedal perambulation was a much better way to go than remaining quadrupedal.

My filed and brightly polished toenails would have to go, replaced by strong, sharp claws that could easily pierce porous bark or hook onto an uneven edge (completely impractical for someone who wears socks and sleeps under a blanket, though). Whereas humans, including me, need at least three points of attachment when climbing, this adaptation allows squirrels to secure their position with only two attachment points, and to grasp new surfaces at angles most animals would find impossible.

Most important of all, I would need feet that can pivot on a swivel joint, allowing my ankles to rotate backwards so I could hang from nearly vertical surfaces.

If I’d been born a flamboyantly fluffy-tailed rodent then maybe, just maybe, I could latch on to a wrinkle in the tree rind and hang by my toenails while enjoying a leisurely acorn snack. Alas, ’tis the fault in my stars to peer ever and enviously skyward, my feet with their simple-hinge ankles planted on the firmament at the base of the trunk, and looked down upon with curiosity and pity (I assume) from the higher-ups.

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[Thanks to the photographers made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Mr.TinDC, Artful Magpie, JoeInQueens, and Jed Sheehan.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

An opossum in the snow

A Virginia opossum braves the snow to look for an early evening meal (iStock/twphotos, used with permission)

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[I’m on the road this week and looking forward to seeing some snow! With that in mind, I decided to reprint this piece from 2010. A new NDN post is in the works for next week.]

A dusting of snow always makes it easier to see who’s been out and about in the neighborhood. Bird tracks don’t provide much insight into genus and species, but opossum tracks are recognizable enough. Several of them—or maybe it was one very busy guy or gal—live along a favorite walking route of mine.

example of opossum paw printsOpossums are down with life in and around town, in part because they are the penultimate omnivorous opportunists. In addition to their “traditional” cuisine, which features insects, small vertebrate animals, wild fruits (including persimmons, a special treat), and carrion, ‘possums are known to take advantage of uncovered garbage bins (not without risk, as they often fall in and become trapped) and bird feeder spillage. They’re not shy about venturing through a pet door now and then either, especially if there’s a beckoning bowl of kibble on the other side. This can come as quite a shock—to both parties—when the homeowner wanders into the mudroom or kitchen expecting to say good morning to Garfield or Odie.

If ever there was a creature in need of a good spin-doctor, it’s North America’s only marsupial. The Aussie cousins—kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, sugar gliders, even wombats—have somehow garnered a higher charismatic ranking than poor old Didelphis virginiana.

Their long snout, gray fur, and naked tail cause many city and suburb folks to mistake them for rodents, and this may be the root of their public relations problems. I remember a wildlife center phone conversation with a woman surprised and frightened by an opossum who wandered through the pet door into her laundry room.  Eventually, I was able to calm her down a bit by convincing her she was not dealing with a freak-of-nature rat, but my attempts to help her appreciate the natural beauty standing in front of her dryer fell on deaf ears.

Startled Woman: I’m sorry, but I can’t even stand to look at him… he’s just so UGLY!

Indignant Wildlife Biologist (that would be me): Well, ma’am, he’s probably thinking the same thing about you!

Not one of my finest Wildlife Hot-Line moments, I know, but the words were tumbling off of my tongue before I had a chance to bite it. I happen to find opossums quite handsome. Still, there’s no denying that rodent resemblance. If you are mouse-and-rat adverse you’ll probably never come to think of ‘possums as pretty.

There’s another problem—it’s a common misconception that ‘possums are clumsy, dirty, and not all that bright, with poor vision and hearing to boot.

Don’t believe it.

Personally, I think any species that’s managed to survive relatively unchanged since the Cretaceous deserves a little more credit. Modern humans arrived on the scene nearly 90 million years later, so perhaps we should be a little more respectful of our elders.

Opossums are actually quite clean. They carefully groom themselves during and after eating—even the babies. When it comes to the acuity of their senses, common knowledge has it all wrong. These marsupials have excellent hearing and can easily detect the rustling of prey hidden under dry leaves or tree bark. A wildlife rehabilitator friend who works extensively with opossums tells me they evolved with a focus on olfactory sensitivity and, as a result, have an extraordinary sense of smell. Their sight is about average for mammals, but because they are primarily nocturnal, their eyes are adapted to working under low-light conditions. Our daytime is their night and, as a result, they can appear rather dazed and confused in sunlight.

Kind of like me when I’m up past my bedtime.

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© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.

Wingsuit

Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), © 2014 Peter Harrill, used with permission

Is there any non-human skill people covet more passionately than the ability to fly?

Understandably, early aviation experiments centered around mimicry of birds, complete with flapping arms that were usually covered in feathers. The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus is a familiar example, but plumage continued to be part of the trial-and-error approach through the first years of the 19th century, when a tailor named Albrecht Berblinger constructed an ornithopter and then took an ill-fated plunge into the Danube. Those daring young men with their dreams of flying machines… they just didn’t understand the concepts of thrust, lift, and drag, and they couldn’t let go of the idea that soaring requires feathers.

I guess Saturday mornings with Rocky and Bullwinkle were not a part of their childhood.

Skip ahead in the history books about two hundred years, during which heavier-than-air flight went from foolish fantasy to fleetingly airborne, to semi-reliably aloft, to acrobatic enough to decide the outcome of a World War, to commonplace as ~30,000 commercial flights per day in the U.S. in 2017.

And yet…

Aviation advancements and inventions during the greater part of the industrial age were about balloons and dirigibles and planes, i.e., aircraft; human beings remained firmly planted on terra firma unless they could climb inside or hang from some kind of apparatus.

It’s hard to point to a specific aeronautic adventurer as the first to see a flying squirrel, recognized the similarities with their fellow mammal, connected the dots, and think, “Eureka! A wingsuit!” But no one lucky enough to have seen one of these big-eyed nocturnal windsurfers could fail to notice the resemblance to the modern flying suits that have finally allowed human beings to fly free as a bird squirrel, unencumbered by gondola, scaffolding, or fuselage.

Of course, strictly speaking flying squirrels don’t really fly, and neither do the people wearing a wingsuit.

They glide.

The wingsuit mimics a flying squirrel’s patagium—loose folds of skin that span the space between forelimb wrist and hindlimb ankle on either side of the body. Spreading those limbs into a jumping jack X, the furry membranes stretch into a rectangular shape that allows the tiny BASE* jumpers to propel themselves into the air and then slide down the sky at a 30-40 degree angle controlled fall.

© 2008 Steve Collins, used with permission

A long, flat tail is critical for controlling that fall. Serving as a rudder, it allowing 90 degree turns around mid-flight obstacles. The tail is used for landing, too; on the approach, the tail is raised to an upright position while, at the same time, all four limbs move forward to form a kind of patagium parachute. Together, these actions create enough drag to tip the animal’s head and body up as it prepares for impact with a tree trunk or branches, a bird feeder, or a building.

Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) © 2015 Jukka Jantunen, used with permission

The New World is home to three species of rodent flyboys and flygirls: Northern (Glaucomys sabrinus); the recently differentiated and designated Humboldt’s (G oregonensis); and Southern (G volans). There’s some range overlap between Northerns and Southerns, but the two species are relatively easy to distinguish. Northerns are larger, but the belly of the beasts provides a much more notable difference; the underside of a Southern flying squirrel is creamy white, while Northern flying squirrels are beige below with darker roots.

Humboldt’s flying squirrel

There’s range overlap between Northerns (found from Alaska to Nova Scotia down to Utah and North Carolina) and Humboldts’ (whose limit their travels from British Columbia down into southern California) as well. However, the two are close enough in physical appearance and behavior that it took an examination of their DNA before scientists realized earlier this year (May 2017) that they were looking at not one species, but two. Humboldts’ have been described as smaller and darker than Northerns, but the fact that it took so long for the former to be recognized as distinctive (Southerns were first described in 1758, Northerns in 1801) suggests to me that one would have to do a mighty up-close-and-personal examination to make a positive ID.

All three varieties of Glaucomys have one important feature in common: they’re more risk-averse than you might have assumed. Riding the wind wearing a wingsuit is a dangerous activity for humans — one severe injury for every 500 jumps, according to one study, despite advances in materials, design, and training — but it’s just another day in the life of a flying squirrel. That’s not to imply they never miscalculate a distance, or botch a landing, or are immune from injury (or worse), but they do have concerns beyond thrust, lift, and drag, or changes in wind speed and direction.

Which is why, immediately after sticking the landing, a flying squirrel will scurry quickly to their nest hole, or the other side of the tree, or at least toward a deeper shadow. BASE jumpers and skydivers rarely have worry about avoiding predators waiting in the wings.

[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Richard Schneider, and Barbogast. The painting of Icarus and Daedalus is by Charles Paul Landon, and the drawing of a New World flying squirrel is by Charles Henry Dessalines d’Orbigny, currently in the University of Washington’s Freshwater and Marine Image Bank; both images are in the public domain. © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

*BASE is the acronym that stands for the four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: building, antenna, span (bridge), and Earth (cliffs).

Sentry duty

blue jay

Blue jays keep a close watch on their neighborhood (Photo: Rick Leche, CCL).

[This post was first published on Feb 12, 2011.]

JAY!  JAY!  JAY!

Uh oh. I’ve been spotted, and the guards have ratted me out.

HALT! Who goes there?

Thought you could slip past, did you? Not on my watch. Hey everybody—look!

LOOK! OVER THERE!

Steller's jay

Steller’s jay (Photo: Allan D. Wilson, CCL).

Every non-human ear in the neighborhood takes note. It feels a bit like being caught at an awkward moment by the paparazzi. But I don’t take it personally. I know everyone who wanders past is subject to the same protocol—people, cats and dogs, hawks, snakes, you name it. Jays take sentry duty seriously. Any real or imagined threat to the forest citizenry is duly noted and announced.

western scrub jay

Western scrub jay (Photo: Len Blumin, CCL).

Jays are part of a large family. Their Corvidae cousins include gray jays, nutcrackers, crows, ravens, and magpies, as well as some species we’re not that familiar with in North America–choughs, treepies, and jackdaws. In the Americas alone there are over 30 different species christened with some variation of the “jay” brand. The five scrub jays (Aphelocoma spp.) and the pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) closely favor one another, but two members of the North American branch have made striking and unique sartorial choices. Once you’ve seen a Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) or a blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), you’ll never mistake them for any other bird.

Florida scrub jay

Florida scrub jay (Photo: B. Walker, CCL).

Of course, they’re not really blue. It’s just a trick of the light called a schemochrome. If you find a blue jay feather you can watch the color disappear and reappear as you roll the shaft between your fingers, changing it’s position relative to the sun. These forest defenders are high-tech.

When they’re not spying on everyone, jays pitch in to give the next generation of trees a head start. Okay, that’s probably an accidental community service. Jays bury acorns and then fail to use them all at snack time. The seeds germinate and—poof!—you’ve got a new oak tree. If society benefits from your actions, intentional or not, shouldn’t you still get some credit?

 

piñon jay

Pinyon jay (Photo: Tony Randell, CCL).

Despite their public service efforts, jays have a reputation as bad birds. Maybe it’s the black mask some of them wear. More likely, it’s the abuse of power so often attributed to their ranks. Eye-witnesses tell of raids on the nests of other birds for eggs and hatchlings, but one extensive study of blue jay feeding behavior found only 1% of these feathered neighbors had evidence of eggs or birds in their stomachs. You’ll also hear stories of jays who trick fellow backyard residents into leaving the feeder by mimicking hawk calls. Now, I can’t deny that some bullying does occur. Think of it as the price of protection, if you must. But judge not, lest ye be judged. Keep in mind that both Steller’s and blue jays have complex social systems and tight family bonds.

Birds, like people, are rarely all good or bad. Your perception of how the scale tips often depends on your point of view. Life isn’t always black and white, or even shades of gray. Sometimes, it’s not even blue.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.