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Yukon Flying Squirrel

My Dad used to say that this or that would happen when pigs fly. Pigs can't fly, I'd tell him. "It's just an old expression," he would say, frowning at my naiveté.

But squirrels can. Really? Yep, some can, and today we'll explore the lifestyle of a tiny creature whom you will seldom see. Just like flying pigs.

On the limb of a tall spruce tree in the dense Yukon forest, a tiny rodent - not much bigger than a mouse - prepares for a 50-metre journey through the air to a landing spot on another chosen tree. As it leaps into space, its four limbs spread wide, withloose fur-covered skin stretched out to create a parachute, the Northern Flying Squirrel glides along, twisting and turning through the trees.

The squirrel steers by adjusting the tightness of the skin flap and position of its front legs. The tail acts as a stabilizer, like the tail of a kite.

As the long journey nears its finale, the squirrel swoops up at the last moment, reducing its speed with air brakes - like a just-landed 737 - and settles gently on the branch.

It turns out this miracle of squirrel flying is not really flying. Instead, the Yukon Flying Squirrel is an accomplished glider. The tiny mammal is common in Yukon forests, but because it's a nocturnal owl, few Yukoners have ever seen one.

Because biologists have not studied the flying squirrel much in the Yukon, its distribution is not well known. Still, they say there are plenty of them around.

You've all seen red squirrels. Well, the flying guy is about half that size, weighing in at about 100 grams, the size of a big chocolate bar. Brown-grey fur on the top of its body contrasts sharply with the pale, cream-coloured underparts.

The loose skin that runs from the wrist to ankle means the little guy is not very agile on the ground, but a thing of beauty in the air. With the help of its flattened tail, the flying squirrel can bank and turn in mid-glide. The large bright eyes help give the flying squirrel a unique appearance.

Like all squirrels, the young are born in a tree in spring. Sometimes a mother will glide while holding one of the young in her mouth.

Unlike red squirrels, flying squirrels are very sociable. As many as twenty flying squirrels have been found sleeping in a single communal winter nest.

So you ask, how can I see this tiny creature that only comes out at night. Well, usually you don't, but some observers have reported seeing flying squirrels as they land softly on a bird feeder.

I saw one in the small forest above the clay cliffs many years ago. What kind of bird looks like a mouse, I later asked my Dad.

Dunno know, he said, but if you think you saw such a creature, the next thing you'll be telling me is that pigs can fly.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Ground Squirrels

Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the ground squirrel is? Well, by mid-April or early May, these indicators of Yukon spring will be everywhere - along the roadsides, standing straight up watching and talking. Most people call them gophers and that's OK, but they really are squirrels.

You'll be happy to see them too, because they have been well hidden in their burrows under the deep snow since mid-September. Ground squirrels live all over the Yukon, from southern meadows to the Arctic coastal plain and from sea level to above 2000 meters - or 6000 feet. They like ground that has sandy soil because it makes digging easy and quickly drains spring flood waters and the heavy summer rain.

The ground squirrel is built for life close to the land, with stubby legs and powerful claws which makes them natural diggers. These digs or burrows are their colonies, where the dominant male controls the territory.

A colony's burrow may have fifty entrances and a maze of tunnels that are used year after year. In winter, arctic ground squirrels go into deep hibernation and their body temperature falls to near 0°C.

They are the only mammals known to allow their body temperatures to drop below freezing. By super cooling in hibernation, they save lots of energy needed for the long winter snooze and early spring romps when food is scarce.

In the spring mating season, encounters between males gets downright nasty and can turn into a boundary brawl. The fighters roll around in a ball and sometimes can be hurt quite badly. The winner earns the right to mate with the females residing in their hard-won space. Females come out one to two weeks after males do, and are ready to mate within a few days.

The young are tiny, but grow up fast. At twenty days, their eyes are open. Soon after, the young squirrels make their outside debut.

Yukon History Hougengroup
Source: National Geographic
Click for larger view.

Female Arctic ground squirrels produce a single litter of five to ten young each year. To protect their offspring, mothers move them to different burrows and forcefully defend them from marauding predators, including strange squirrels. A Yukon study proved that male intruders from other colonies sometimes kill the young.

If a coyote comes by, the ground squirrel exhibits its native name by chattering "sik-sik-sik".

They often sit on rocks or brush piles, always on the lookout. So keep an eye out for them, and take some time to enjoy their antics. They are a hoot to watch as one of the Yukon's natural summer treasures.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin