John Pollpeter, lead naturalist at Land Between the Lakes' Woodlands Nature Station, speaks with Tracy Ross about Kentucky's state mammal, the Eastern gray squirrel, and its aerodynamic relative, the Southern flying squirrel.
"I actually love squirrels -- I think they're fun to watch," Pollpeter begins. "They obviously have a lot of comedy associated with them. Kentucky has about five different kinds of squirrels that you're going to find around here. You have the common Eastern gray squirrel; the larger fox squirrel which you see more in countrysides and big, open spaces; chipmunks might be in some people's yards; groundhogs; but the one I always think is kind of neat...and that happens to be the most abundant squirrel in Kentucky is the Southern flying squirrel."
Kentucky's high flying squirrel population is due to "the fact that they can live in large numbers in smaller areas," he continues. "Flying squirrels are cavity nesters, which means they live in holes in trees. [In the winter months], some scientists have found as many as fifty flying squirrels in one tree hole. That just tells you that their density is pretty high, and they're found almost in every community. If you have oak trees in...or near your yard, you probably have flying squirrels. What you may not realize is they're coming to visit your bird feeders, your suet feeders, in the middle of the night. They're completely nocturnal."
The aerodynamic mammal's name is a little misleading, as are other similarly named flying fish, frogs, snakes, lemurs, or reptiles. Flying squirrels don't fly -- rather, they glide. "A flying squirrel can actually glide, parachute almost, 150 feet. Some have even been seen [gliding] as much as 300 feet," Pollpeter explains. "The coolest part about their design is they have that parachute that you see...the skin flaps between their wrist and their ankles...but they also have a flat tail. They don't have a bushy tail like the gray squirrel or the fox squirrel. They have a flat tail that acts as a rudder." Their rudder-like tail allows flying squirrels to make 180 degree turns mid-glide, giving them complete control as they "fly" through the air.
"The reasons why flying squirrels have this is to avoid predation, but also, it's more efficient than climbing down a tree, running across the ground, and climbing up another tree. You kind of just skip the middle man and jump from one place to place," Pollpeter says.
Flying squirrels are mainly nocturnal, so your chances of having to dodge a furry, airborne creature are relatively low. "In fact, if people want, you can actually watch flying squirrels come to your bird feeders if you do certain things," Pollpeter explains. "Because they have nocturnal vision, if you put a red lightbulb in your porch light and it glows on your bird feeders, you can actually watch them glide in and land on your bird feeders as long as you have some trees...they can come and go from."
"[Flying squirrels] are a fun thing that you're going to find in your backyard. You can actually build nest boxes and raise flying squirrels in your yard. You can definitely watch them and enjoy them. I always think it's kind of neat that humans like to imitate animals, so now you're starting to see people jumping off cliffs with these flying squirrel suits on. That's a complete design from Mother Nature," Pollpeter concludes.