One evening, back when he was in high school, Derek Stinson returned to his Massachusetts home with his parents to encounter his younger brother, Jay, waiting for them at the door.
“There’s something in the cupboard,” Jay told them, “and it’s not a rat.”
When Derek peered into a cupboard containing the family’s breakfast cereal, a pair of big eyes stared back. They belonged to a southern flying squirrel. Two squirrels, in fact, had squeezed through a hole outside and now were trapped inside. The boys’ father hunted one down and killed it with a broom.
Curious, Derek dug out the National Geographic Wild Animals of North America guide book. He remembers that it suggested “how wonderful flying squirrels are, how they get into people’s houses occasionally and unfortunately are occasionally killed by ignorant people. Or something like that.”
Determined to spare the surviving squirrel from their father’s lethal broom, the Stinson brothers spent a day at home trying to capture it. It was not easy. Whenever it emerged, the squirrel scrambled up the curtains, then glided across the living room, the two boys in tow. Finally, it flew into an upstairs bathroom, with Jay following and Derek shutting the door behind them. Following a bunch of bumping and banging noises, Jay trapped the squirrel under a laundry basket. The boys slipped a piece of cardboard underneath, then ushered the critter outside.
Today, Derek Stinson is a veteran biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I called him to discuss medium-sized rodents from the Sciurida family. We also discussed the recent revelation that the state of Washington had not one species of flying squirrel, as had been believed for some 200 years, but two.
It was a surprising and exciting development—for the both of us. Stinson had his squirrelly encounter, and my childhood coincided with the run of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show cartoons, featuring Rocket J. Squirrel, aka “Rocky,” a flying squirrel with a superhero bent. About 20 years ago, there was interest in flying squirrels because they were believed to be a component of the diet of the endangered Northern Spotted Owl. But today, the rest of the general public doesn’t pay the soaring rodents much mind.
“They are so seldom seen,” Stinson says, “we don’t often get questions about them or hear much about them.”
Washington’s flying squirrels slipped back into the public consciousness last summer when a group of researchers revealed in The Journal of Mammalogy the existence in this state of the Humboldt’s flying squirrel, named for the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, considered the father of environmentalism. (Humboldt is believed to be the first person to describe, in 1800, the phenomenon and causes of human-induced climate change.)
The study’s lead author, Brian Arbogast, an associate professor of biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, was a postdoctoral researcher in 1992 at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. While poring over the Burke’s specimen collection, Arbogast had noticed that the northern flying squirrels from the Pacific Coast were smaller and darker than the ones found east of the Cascades. The differences suggested a separate species, something confirmed through DNA testing.
Northern and Humboldt’s flying squirrels coexist in parts of western Washington and southern British Columbia, but that does not improve the odds of ever spotting either in the wild. They are small nocturnal creatures that live in the cavities of decaying trees.
“If you were hiking at night through old-growth forest with a headlamp, you might catch a glimpse of something that might be a flying squirrel,” Stinson says.
The Humboldt’s increases the number of squirrel species in the state of Washington to 20, according to Stinson. Eleven are native, including three species of tree squirrels, six ground and two flying. Three are marmots and four are chipmunks, all also native. Two, the eastern gray and fox squirrels, are non-native.
Stinson weighed in on some good-to-know factoids about our state’s non-aerial squirrels:
You didn’t really see what you thought you saw: The Cascade golden-mantled ground squirrel frequently is confused for a chipmunk. The best way to tell the difference is that, although both have lateral striping, the chipmunk’s stripe extends to its eyes.
The native squirrel you most likely see in Western Washington is really mad at you: The grumpy rodent you often hear before you see is a Douglas squirrel. Its squeaky “scolding” often is directed at humans, who, while not major predators, are serious destroyers of their habitat.
The squirrels you see in urban environments are imports: Those would be eastern gray squirrels in western Washington and fox squirrels in eastern Washington. They were imported from the eastern U.S. because some misguided souls thought it would be cute to have them roaming in our city parks.
Squirrels mostly likely waiting to be rescued by Rocky: The western gray squirrel is listed as “threatened” in this state; the Washington ground squirrel and Townsend’s ground squirrels are candidates to be listed. The westerns are victims mostly of timber harvesting, while the groundies had habitat converted to agriculture.
Do a squirrel a solid: Don’t feed them! “It perverts their normal foraging and behavior,” Stinson says. “Often we feed them things that aren’t good for them.” The squirrel you’re feeding most likely is a non-native that is outcompeting species that belong here. Plus, it’s never a good idea to reduce any wildlife’s natural fear of humans.