Field Notes: The Night Flights Of Squirrels

Before I realized I could not fly, I would spend whole afternoons perched on the front porch rail, ready for adventure, with a towel tucked in the back of my collar, launching myself into the sky. The crashes were dramatic - as dramatic as I could make them once I concluded the towel/cape wasn't the key to flight. The costume was mere artifice; every Superman needs a gimmick, apparently. The real trick to flying is determination and belief, I decided. My problem was that I lost faith at the critical moment when I became airborne, and in failing in faith I also failed at flight. Thinking quickly, as all flyers do, I would switch quickly to Plan B: execute a spectacular crash.

I thought about that boy of little faith when I discovered on a trip out by the barn one recent night that the towel was, in fact, crucial to flight. At Kate's urging we went out to the large maple that looms over the barn, where she had heard strange scrabblings in the tree. We took the flashlight and illuminated the branches and trunk of the suspect tree to reveal... small flying towels!... no wait,  flying washcloths!

That's what the squirrels looked like, anyway, as they leapt from branch to branch. There were five or six of them darting up and down the tree and across dark horizontal spaces as if on invisible zip lines. They were creating a huge commotion over the corncob laden whirligig we had attached to the tree to confound the day-shift squirrels and to amuse ourselves and our dog.

Flying squirrels are fairly common in Connecticut, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. They are nocturnal, however, and rarely seen by most of us. These were the first I had seen on our property, though they have probably been living with us for years.

Flying squirrels don't actually fly. They use generous skin membranes that stretch between their limbs to catch the air, enabling them to glide like kites from higher to lower places. They are smaller and lighter than regular grey squirrels and have large eyes well adapted to nightlife. While I only saw them "flying" from branch to branch, they can glide 80 or 100 feet or more from the tops of trees to the ground. ( YouTube has some videos, if you are interested.)

Aside from my failures of faith and determination as Superboy, I apparently needed to attach the towel to my wrists and ankles and not just my collar. I'll leave it to some other younger porch rail pilot to prove me right. (My ankle still hurts from an ill-advised leap from the back of the truck a couple of weekends ago.)

I have since learned in reading up on the habits of our new-found tenants that in addition to the seeds and corn kernels we leave around the place for the birds, flying squirrels are fond of truffles and quite adept at finding the rare and tasty fungus. They also help in propagating truffles by spreading their spores in their droppings.

The thought of collaring the critters for a truffle hunt has crossed my mind, but given their speed and agility that would require a set of superpowers well beyond the limits of my faith and determination. But I do have a mongrel dog with more than a little bloodhound in him. With a whiff of truffle oil and a towel tucked in his collar, we will be ready for our next big adventure.

(More than 85 Field Notes essays by Curtiss Clark can be found at www.field-notebook.com.)

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