An Elfin Visitor in the Kitchen

Several nights ago, when I was unable to sleep, I decided to sit at the kitchen table and read, so as not to waken my husband, Edward. It was quite late, three o’clock AM to be exact, when I became aware of a rustling sound over the kitchen window, above the sink. “Probably a white-footed mouse,” I thought, and decided to ignore it. The rustling was soon accompanied by a determined chewing sound that I realized was of the Chinese bamboo vegetable steamer, which hangs from a nail over the sink, being eaten. Reluctantly, I put down my book and went over to chastise the little visitor. As I approached, I realized that I was not seeing a mouse, but a somewhat larger creature perched upon the rim of the steamer. I wondered if it were an endangered woodrat. Then I saw the wide fluffy tail. Huge, glistening black eyes regarded me fearlessly as the little animal ate the bamboo. Its fur was a soft, reddish-brown on the tail, head, and back, and its stomach and throat were white. There were loose folds of fur-covered skin along its sides. Suddenly, I knew that I was facing a creature I had only seen before in pictures. It was a flying squirrel!

I called softly to Edward to come quickly and quietly and see what was in the kitchen, but, as he approached, the squirrel leaped agilely to an aperture leading to the attic and disappeared. Grumbling, Edward returned to bed, and the squirrel hopped down again to eat his steamer.

I was thrilled to be in the presence of this elfin creature, which is rarely encountered except by woodsmen who fell trees. Although it may gain access to an attic, this squirrel makes its nest in a woodpecker’s hollow, in what is known as a “snag”: a standing dead tree.

It is unfortunate that many forests are managed in such a way that tree snags are systematically removed, since the cavities carved in them by woodpeckers are in great demand as nesting sites for birds as well as mammals.

The flying squirrel is almost entirely nocturnal. Its extremely large eyes and its “baby-face” make it look like a child’s toy. The loose folds of furred skin I had noticed on the sides of our little visitor extend from the wrists of its forelegs to the ankles of its hindlegs, making flaps. When these flaps are extended, they enable the squirrel to glide as much as one hundred and fifty feet!

The flying squirrel eats nuts, fruits, sugar maple buds, and insects. It greatly enjoys eating pine cone seeds, and makes nighttime visits to bird feeders as well. However, it quite opportunistic, and may snatch a drowsy roosting bird, or eat an occasional fledgling or egg.

The breeding season for northern flying squirrels is in February and March. The helpless, pink babies, generally three or four in number, are usually born in a tree cavity. The nest is lined with soft wood fibers and fur plucked from the mother’s breast. She spreads her “wing” flaps over the babies to keep them warm. The babies are fully furred in two weeks, and their eyes and ears are open in four. The flying squirrel mother is extremely attentive to her young, rarely leaving them for more than a few moments to obtain food.

I was very sorry that Edward had not witnessed the visit of that most dainty and beautiful of squirrels, a true woodland spirit, the flying squirrel.

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