When the Wind Blows

neonate songbird

Wild youngsters may end up on the ground when their nests are blown out of trees by violent storms (Photo: Ryan Keene, Creative Commons license)

[Reprint from April 2011… but still useful information during this windy season.].

Late Thursday evening a sound came blasting through dreams and memory to my sleeping brain.  It’s been years—decades even—since I lived in Tornado Alley, where March meant The Wizard of Oz on television and being hustled into the basement at all hours of the day and night while my dad watched the sky and listened to the radio until the National Weather Service ended the Warning or Watch period.

I still have a vivid memory of my first tornado warning after moving to West Texas as a young adult. I heard the siren blast and… froze. Standing in the middle of my kitchen, I had no idea where one is supposed to go when your house doesn’t have a basement. Turning on the radio, a pre-recorded emergency announcement instructed listeners to head for the bathroom. This didn’t make any sense to me at all but I scurried obediently down the hall, imagining myself flying through the air in a bathtub like Calvin and Hobbes hurdling through space in their wagon, or like Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb in Dr. Strangelove.

My parents and my personal history have taught me to take tornados seriously. And I do.

All these years later, when the wind started howling loud enough to make the vent over my stove wail, my eyes flew open. I leapt up, threw back the covers, hustled into the living room and out onto the patio. My turn to keep the night-watch vigil, looking for the bruised, greenish-gray, flat-light sky I still associate with twisters. All I saw were clouds high above, scuttling quickly past, and the flags on a nearby municipal building snapping out a furious beat. Damaging wind speeds, to be sure, but no tornado.

great spotted woodpecker nestlings

Cavity nests offer protection from storms… unless the entire tree goes down (Photo: by Graham Gavaghan, Creative Commons license)

When I ran a wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas, springtime storms always brought a deluge of baby animals into our shelter. Nests cradling baby birds and squirrels were blown out of branches, and even cavity-nesters weren’t safe when the storm was strong enough to uproot entire trees. Permitted wildlife rehabbers are trained to provide the care wildlings need to grow up healthy and return to the wild, but it’s always best to reunite offspring with their parents… if possible. As a result, rehabilitators have come up with a variety of creative reunion methods and techniques. After a tornado or hurricane churns through a neighborhood, though, the wild adults, if they survived, may be too disoriented to find their babies.

If you come across a wild baby on the ground, for whatever reason, and you’re not sure if it needs help or what to do, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator for advice. State and provincial wildlife agencies that require a permit to rehabilitate wildlife legally will usually post a list of individuals on their website. Additionally, readers in North America may find the following links helpful:


Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC)

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA)

young squirrels in rehab

Wildlife rehabilitators are trained to meet the special needs of wild infants (Photo: by Carol Vinzant, Creative Commons license)

You may be offered instructions for how to help bring mother and child back together, or be asked to transport the animal to an individual or a center for care.  Just as important, you’ll be told how to protect your own health and safety while being a good Samaritan.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the photographers for using the Creative Commons license.

Like cats… and dogs

red fox

The red fox is a canine with many cat-like characteristics and behaviors (Photo: Matt Knoth, Creative Commons license)

.[Reprint from March 2011]

Gazing blearily through coffee steam, a ghostly figure wafting through the early morning haze caught Lisa’s eye. “At first, it was just a ginger-orange and white shadow, and I thought, “Oh, no… another stray cat.”

The specter became more substantial as it moved closer.

“I saw that it wasn’t a cat after all. It stopped at the edge of my patio and began to watch me. There we sat, two redheads—one natural, one augmented—staring straight into each other’s eyes.”

An understandable case of mistaken identity. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has some strikingly feline features: a sleek, slender-boned physique; long, sensitive whiskers; flexible feet with partially retractable claws on the front paws; thin, dagger-like canine teeth; and a tail that accounts for 1/3 of the animal’s total length… it all contributes to the illusion.Add to that eyes with vertically slit pupils and you start to understand why the red fox is known as the “cat-like canid.”

Their hunting strategy is more felid, too. Canines tend to rely less on stealth, often hunting in packs using a tag-team approach to run down prey.  Cats, with the exception of African lions (Panthera leo), are solitary hunters who stalk and ambush prey with an explosion of speed. Canids are relay runners; felids—and foxes—are sprinters who dispatch dinner with a quick, sustained bite, in contrast to the multi-wound or bite-and-shake method employed by most canines.Biologists suggest that the behavioral similarities between foxes and cats could be the result of convergent evolution: the development of an identical trait in unrelated lineages. Comparable adaptations, they explain, arise when species occupy similar niches—insect, bird, and bat flight are commonly sited examples. Foxes and small felines target similar prey, so one should not be surprised that analogous hunting strategies evolved in these species.

Seems reasonable enough… but it’s harder to explain some of the V. vulpes‘ other felid behaviors. Their young hiss and spit like kittens, while adult vocalizations include cat-like shrieks and mewing cries. And then there’s the “lateral threat display.” You know it as the classic Halloween scaredy-cat pose—back arched, fur erect. See it and you immediately think, “cat,” not “dog.”

We humans like categories. You’re hip-hop or honky-tonk, freak or geek, fact or fiction, apple or orange. Pick your pigeonhole, please, and kindly stay in it.

So what are we to do about a creature who refuses to comply with our “either/or” worldview?

If you’re an urban wildlife enthusiast, you smile and shake your head in wonder at the boundless diversity of this bright blue gem of a planet, and your luck at having landed on it.

If you’re a taxonomist, you lay awake at night, grinding your teeth.

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© 2011 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: Matt Knoth (cover); Dave C (eyes); Bernard Stam (hunting); and Dave C (napping).

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

Urban development

Raccoons by John Biehler, Creative Commons license

Just hangin’ on the corner with the homies… smart, bored, and looking for trouble (Photo: John Biehler, Creative Commons license)

[Another reprint, this one from February 2012. I’ve been traveling over the holidays and due to some family-related changes to the itinerary I haven’t had much time to write. New stuff is coming, though. I promise. And is there a better way to start a new year than with raccoons? I think not!]

World War II had barely ended when researchers began to notice a major migration under way in North America, from undeveloped and agricultural areas to cities and suburbs.  Now, in the early 21st Century, the urban population is over 20 times that of the early-1940s—in some places, more than 50% higher than the surrounding rural landscape. With growth has come all the problems that naturally occur as a community becomes overcrowded: housing shortages and squatting; dumpster diving; increases in theft and property damage; sanitation-related public health concerns. sometimes, we all need a little help getting through the day... by jmtimages, creative commons licenseAll of this has a tendency to make established residents less tolerant of immigrants, even when the new neighbors are clever, ambitious, hard-working, good parents, and undeniably cute as all get-out.

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) may be new to the urban scene, but… oh, you probably thought I was talking about people, right?

That’s understandable, I suppose. Just about everything I’ve said to this point could apply to humans as well. There’s no denying that Homo sapiens is now an urban species. The tipping point (>50% of humans living in areas of high population density) came around 2007. Each year, more of us are lured by the promise of better-paying jobs, more housing options, access to social services and chain restaurants, bigger shopping malls, a larger dating pool, and high-speed Internet connections. In other cases, concrete tentacles sprawl past the city limit signs to grab up and devour surrounding countryside, forcing rural residents to choose between relocating to land that hasn’t yet caught developers’ eyes and becoming accidental townies.

urban raccoons by liz west ccThe “built environment” is intended to meet the wants and needs of our own kind, but raccoons may be better suited for what we’ve constructed than the target real estate market.

Raccoon Nation, a documentary that aired in the U.S. on the PBS “Nature” series, and in Canada on the CBC News Network series “The Nature of Things with David Suzuki,” makes a strong case in support of that thesis.* As filmmakers follow the furry urbanites in their native North America (including Chicago and Toronto—known as the “raccoon capital of the world”), as well as in Germany and Japan (where they were intentionally introduced), it’s hard not to notice the similarities between those who construct cities and those who exploit them and their work.

How alike are we? Let’s build this case from the ground up.

raccoon paw and human handFeet—humans and raccoons are both plantigrade. In other words, we walk with the entire foot planted firmly on the dirt… make that asphalt. There are other examples (elephants, kangaroos, and pandas come to mind), but the majority of mammals walk on their tippy toes (more on this in a future blog post).

Hands—okay, technically raccoons don’t have hands, they have two more feet. Or you could say they do have hands but they just happen to use theirs for walking. That’s all semantics, though. Look closely and you’ll see one reason it’s so hard to invent a raccoon-proof container—a paw that looks a lot like a palm and a digit that’s as close to the functionality of an opposable thumb as it gets for non-primates.

dumpster raccoons by zeetz jones ccStomachs—the best way to avoid starvation long enough to pass your genes along to the next generation is to cultivate the ability to eat anything and everything you can cram in your mouth that contains a calorie. The human diet is astonishingly diverse, and urban raccoons gobble up everything we leave on our plates and toss in the trash… plus a lot of stuff we would rather not eat. Some researchers suggest that omnivory played a crucial role in human development—by providing a more consistent and more nutritious diet, and because finding potential new foods, determining whether they are edible, and figuring out how to eat them pushed our brains to create new neural pathways. Which brings us to…

Brains—raccoons and people also share a high level of behavioral plasticity, a term that implies the ability to change. Flexibility, adaptability, and life-long learning (well… we both have that capacity; whether we use it or not is another issue). With no email to check, no AYSO games to attend, no need to commute, and only one significant predator (those commuting automobiles), raccoons have plenty of time for learning. Each day is devoted to DIY personal growth, lifestyle enhancement, and honing useful skills, such as…

  • how to turn a garbage can or dumpster into a convenience store;
  • how to tight-rope walk a fence (great for avoiding the neighbor’s dog);
  • how to shimmy down a tree branch onto a rooftop;
  • how to turn a loose shingle on that roof into an attic entrance;
  • how to turn that attic into a cozy, rent-free nursery.

Whether you find these critters endearing or exasperating, it’s never fun to clean up refuse that’s strewn across your yard, and there’s no denying they can and do cause damage to property. Ironically, our attempts to outwit them are molding these savvy metropolitan mammals to better fit the world we built for ourselves. And here’s the other reason I will never invest my hard-earned money in some inventor’s guaranteed raccoon-proof fill-in-the-blank: because no human being will ever have as much time to devote to keeping a raccoon out of something as raccoons, often working in teams, are willing and able to devote to cracking the code. By trying to thwart them, we’re simply selecting for the traits that make a more worthy opponent and a better urban animal. An über-coon, if you like.

bipedal raccoons by David~O ccBefore you know it, they’ll be standing upright in line right beside us at Starbucks, waiting for a Venti Caramel Macchiato to help them wake up for the night shift.

Urban raccoons share another, disturbing commonality with their human neighbors—the toll exacted by easy access to a plentiful, high fat, high sugar, high calorie diet. Diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease may do more to limit their numbers, in the long run, than all the Hav-A-Heart trap-toting home and business owners, urban wildlife biologists, and nuisance wildlife control operators combined. Cleverness and dexterity are no match for the fearful symmetry of a predatory heart attack or kidney failure.

No wonder they call it the urban jungle.

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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: John Biehler (3 sepia raccoons); jmtimages (mother & child); Liz West (supper club); Stuti Sakhalkar (human handprint); Jon Stogner (raccoon pawprint); Zeetz Jones (dumpster ); David~O (bipedal).

Us against the world

coyotes by larry lamsa creative commons license

Coyote couples are as destined to misfortune as any literary star-crossed lovers, but a lot more reproductively successful (Photo: Larry Lamsa, Creative Commons license)

[In honor of my visit to New Mexico, during which I’ve had far less time to write than expected, a reprint from February 2012.] 

Boy meets girl.

It’s such a familiar story I don’t even need to spell out the rest, right?

Ah, but folks do love their stories to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

Ok, ok… so a male and a female find one another.  They “meet-cute” (the classic contrivance of romantic comedies), or through the efforts of micro-managing parents (the historically classic approach), or online, or in one of a million completely unremarkable-to-everyone-else ways—the “how” doesn’t matter (except to the starry-eyed pair, of course). A spark catches and a bond is formed… perhaps by rite (mating or marriage rituals, depending on one’s religion, politics, or species), or at first sight, or possibly over time. They find a home, start a family, and live happily enough ever after (fairy tales tend to gloss over the details of that last part).

It’s a comforting, feel-good saga but it’s not the stuff of legends, or of Pulitzer Prize winning novels, or Oscar accolade dramas. No, for that we need a star-crossed couple, thwarted by outside forces. We need Romeo and Juliet. Catherine and Heathcliff.  Edward and Bella. A pair of coyotes.

coyote in grass by trey ratcliff, creative commons licenseWyle E. and the Mrs. may not be icons of romantic literature, but one would be hard pressed to find couples more destined to misfortune than those of the Canis latrans clan. It’s all here—blood and poison, class and caste, honor and artifice, cruelty and revenge… and then some. After all, the persecution most luckless lovers experience only lasts three Acts, or about 100,000 words. Coyotes have been wearing a target since shortly after European settlers, and their livestock, came to North America in the early 15th Century.

Many species have disappeared into extinction under far less pressure yet, despite hundreds of man-hours and billions of dollars spent annually to wipe coyotes off the face of the Earth, as a species they continue be fruitful and multiply. To survive. To thrive.

urban coyote by ken slade creative commons licenseUnlike their close relative the wolf (Canis lupus), the coyote’s range has expanded in response to human development and programs to exterminate wolves, a key natural competitor. Prior to 1700, coyotes were almost solely creatures of the prairies and deserts of the central United States and Mexico. Now they can be found as far west and north as Alaska, in all but the northernmost reaches of Canada, across the entire “lower 48,” as well as much of Central America, and in habitats as diverse as protected wildlands and urban centers.

How is this possible? Chalk it up to intelligence and adaptability. Behaviorally, coyotes are as flexible as a yoga instructor regarding everything from where to live, what to eat, and even family size and composition.

By 12 months of age—and there’s about a 60% chance a pup will survive his or her first year—coyotes are old enough to start looking for a mate. They don’t always leave home or settle down right away, though. Adults may live alone (for at least part of their life), in pairs, or in packs comprised of an alpha male and female and their offspring from previous years.  Once mated, they form perennial, monogamous bonds; however, on average, “till death do we part” is only a couple of years. In captivity, coyotes can live about as long as domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)—13 to 15 years—but in the wild few live to see their third birthday. Dying young is a familiar theme for the romantically doomed, be they canid or primate.

coyote pups by zac garrett creative commons licenseEveryone in the family unit—Mom, Dad, and any older sibs who haven’t left home—pitches in to rear the current generation of pups; it takes a village to raise coyote kids, too. Litters average four to seven pups, although—and here’s another example of that flexibility I mentioned earlier—coyotes litter size goes up or down based on how much food is available and how many of their brethren live in the neighborhood. In other words, when humans remove (almost always by some lethal method) coyotes from an area, causing the population density to fall, the next breeding season will see a rise in the number of pups per litter. And in the case of the loss of an alpha pair, the remaining pack members may disperse, find mates, and begin raising pups of their own, so the area ends up with more breeding pairs than before any effort was made to reduce their numbers. One could argue that, however counter-intuitive it may first appear, extermination programs are a great way to increase your coyote crop.

last laugh by matt knoth creative commons licenseWell, what do you know? Play your natural selection cards right, and it’s possible to turn the tables on those who try to sabotage your relationship and have the last laugh—talk about a plot twist!

Perhaps the folks who try to control coyotes would find it helpful to read a few Victorian romances. Then again, anyone who’s tried to keep besotted teenagers apart should understand that when it comes to ill-fated lovers, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Come to think of it, maybe Cyrano and Roxanne, Tristan and Isolde, and Jack and Rose should have taken a lesson or two from a couple of cunning characters dressed in fur. They may not have cheated death, but they’ve managed to leave behind generations of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to tell their tale.  From Once Upon a Time to…

The End.

EPILOGUE:  Lest anyone think I’m unfairly choosing sides in the war against coyotes and other wild predators, readers should know that I understand the narrative presented above is not the whole story. I used a literary device to focus attention on a particular aspect of the coyote’s natural history—pair-bonding and social structure—and I intend to return to this and other species featured on this blog again and again over time, as is necessary to flesh out these complex and fascinating creatures.

While I may not always agree with their production practices, I don’t begrudge farmers and ranchers their right to make a living and protect their investment. I’m an omnivore who depends on the plant and animal foods they produce. However, I do find it strange that many who own livestock will point to the fact that coyotes, wolves, and foxes kill cows, sheep, and chickens as proof of their inherent cruelty, and as justification for implementing lethal control measures—even though many, if not most, of these domestic animals are being raised as food and will eventually be killed by the same humans who cry foul when the grim reaper appears on four feet in a pasture instead of on two at the processing plant.

As a biologist, I know that life feeds on other life. That’s the way of the world and I don’t see it changing any time soon. I just think we should be honest about our motives (and I’m aware that I risk offending some readers with what I’m about to say): It’s not that we don’t want that lamb or calf to be killed and eaten; it’s that we want to be the only ones who get to eat. That strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed, because it perpetuates the idea that people are somehow removed from the natural world.

Here in the U.S., we’re already paying to have both livestock and predators on our public and private lands, and have done so for a long time. But the true cost of tonight’s meatloaf or hot wings isn’t visible on the grocery store receipt, in the form of the higher meat prices livestock producers might charge to pass along the cost of losses to predation (or non-lethal prevention methods). Instead, part of the price of our food is disguised, hidden as taxes that support inefficient, ineffective, and often brutally cruel control programs. Personally, I prefer to know how much my dinner really costs, financially and ecologically.

You may disagree, as is your right.

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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: Larry Lamsa (two coyotes and a pup); Trey Ratcliff (coyote in grass);  Ken Slade (coyote on the street); Zac Garrett (coyote pups); and  Matt Knoth (last laugh).


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.]


An opossum in the snow

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


[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.


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).

Track & Field

cottontail leaping

Back to school, and to early morning practice before class – hop to it!

[Students are returning to my university town for the start of another academic year… so in honor of college athletics I’m offering a slightly-edited instant replay of this post about cottontail rabbits that originally ran back in April 2011.]

On your mark…. Get set… HOP!

An article I read while eating breakfast had me thinking about track meets as the terrier-boy and I set off for our morning walk.  That piece may be why I noticed, for the first time, how runners imitate the posture of a rabbit as they settle into their starting blocks. Human runners have to fold themselves up to gain the potential energy advantage of a crouching leg, but rabbits are always ready for the starting gun.


In 2009, Usain Bolt set a record of just over 23 mph in both the 100- and 200-meter, but he’s an exception even among world-class athletes. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for Sylvilagus floridanus to reach speeds of 18 mph, and they can maintain that speed for close to 800 meters… while zig-zagging to change direction every few strides. Let’s see Bolt try that!

racing cottontailsMost sprinters are specialists, but cottontails and other Lagomorphs, with the exception of pikas (Ochotona princeps), also excel at hurdles, steeplechase, and in some field events. Okay, they can’t throw a javelin or a shot-put, but they leap to the top of the score board when it comes to jumping.

leaping cottontails

Longing to see a long jump? At first glance, a cottontail’s 4.8 m (15 ft) may not sound too impressive when compared to current world record holder Mike Powell’s 8.95 m (29.4 ft), set in 1991. But consider this: a 4.8 m leap is 10x the average length of an adult cottontail’s body; 9 m is barely 5x the average height of an adult American male.

How high can they flycottontail courtship? The men’s high jump record stands at 2.45 m (8 ft), set in 1993 by Javier Sotomayor of Cuba. That’s only 1.4x the average height of Olympic jumpers. While courting, both buck (male) and doe (female) cottontails will jump 0.6 m (2 ft), nearly twice their height, to demonstrate worthiness. By that standard, not even elite human athletes would be able to find a mate.

cottontail courtship 2Once the mating ritual (which also includes a little boxing, just to keep things interesting) is complete, 1-12 kits are born approximately 28 days later. A doe will often mate again within hours of giving birth—what a woman! Admittedly, she’ll only visit the nursery when it’s time to feed the kids so she’s not going to win any “most attentive mother” awards. But, to be fair, compared to her baby-daddy she’s a doting parent, and staying away keeps predators from getting wise to the location of the nest. It will take her 3 weeks to wean one set of youngsters, then she’s got about 1 week to recuperate before the stork arrives again.

Still not impressed? She may have up to 7 litters in a single year.  Now, I call that a marathon.

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Porsupah ReeRob Helfman, and Michale Connell.  © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]