Flying Furballs

As I glance out the windows of my home office I’m struck by the calm of a late fall afternoon; the cloudless blue sky with just a whisper of wind through the trees.  I don’t see any aircraft heading to or from the local military bases, nor the white vapor trails they often leave behind.  No flocks of birds heading in perfect formation south for the winter.  No falling leaves spinning to the ground.  Heck, I don’t even see a flying squirrel!

Maybe you caught the story earlier this week.  Seven people locked up in a Florida prison are charged with spearheading a “flying squirrel ring”.  They trapped thousands of the little guys in the wild, laundered them through a dealer (what sort of person deals in flying squirrels?), who distributed them to several buyers.  The buyers then drove to airports around the U.S., where the winged creatures were loaded onto airplanes headed to far eastern countries.  Who knew: there’s a market for flying squirrels as exotic pets?  Asians pay top dollar for them.

Is it just me or is there something a little redundant about shipping a flying squirrel on an airplane?

Also, what kind of a weirdo goes to the trouble to capture, launder, distribute, sell, drive, and transport thousands of flying squirrels halfway around the world?  If you’re going to do something illegal why not deal drugs?  Does a flying squirrel sell for that much?

Here’s another thing I can’t figure.  What do you call a litter of flying squirrels… a “squadron”?

You must admit, flying squirrels probably make the top-ten list of God’s coolest creatures.  The Northern species is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  They have big doe eyes to help them see in the dark (picture a Disney character).  They forage for fruit, seeds, tree sap, and the occasional bird egg.  They’ve been buzzing the planet for millions of years now – almost prehistoric.

But let’s talk about those “wings”.  Flying squirrels have what’s called a patagium: a furry, parachute-like membrane stretching from tiny wrist to tiny ankle.  When the membrane’s stretched taut they can glide from tree to tree, using their tail for stability.  They can even steer their body like an airplane, using limbs and tail.  How far can a flying squirrel fly, you ask?  How about 300 feet?  Yep, put one of these babies on top of an American football goalpost and he can soar all the way through the other end zone.  “Touchdown”!

“Boo!”

Okay BUT… flying squirrels lost some of their coolness when I discovered this picture.  OMG, that’s just wicked scary.  Can you imagine camping under the stars relaxed in your sleeping bag and you wake up to the rapid descent of that?  I’d NEVER be the same.  And here’s another Halloween-ish detail: flying squirrels glow.  Their underbody fluoresces pink under UV light.  Why?  No idea, but that just makes them creepier.

Maybe I don’t want a flying furball for a pet after all.

I suppose I’d take flying squirrels over some of the other flying organisms out there.  You know about flying fish.  You may even know about flying frogs.  But did you know about the flying squid in our oceans?  Seriously, they can jettison out of the water by expelling water from their “funnel” and travel up to 160 feet.  They can even keep that water blast going in the air for extra distance.  And there you have it: the world’s only jet-propelled aerial locomotion animal.

This is wrong on so many levels…

Now let’s get to the stuff of real nightmares.  How about flying snakes?  Five species in Southeast Asia and India can glide like the squirrels.  They contort their long bodies to be concave (like an upside-down taco shell), which allows them to buoy on a cushion of air.  Not to be outdone by the squirrels, flying snakes can also cover the length of a football field.  They even make mid-air 90-degree turns.  I didn’t have plans to visit Southeast Asia or India anytime soon but now I’m never going.  No way.

Finally, we have the undisputed king of flying nightmares: balloon spiders.  These ungodly insects spin a silky globe along with a sturdy dragline and go for a ride wherever the wind may take them.  If I was talking about one flying spider I might deal with it but these guys travel in packs.  Large packs.  Can you imagine?  An endless assault of mini paratroopers on a mini Normandy, only you are Normandy.  “Incoming!”

“I’ll get you, my pretty…”

You can fill your skies with whatever you want but I’ll pass on flying squids, snakes, and spiders.  I’ll even pass on the Northern squirrel (they only live 5-6 years and have no interest in bonding with humans)  Oh, and for those of you with flying monkeys on the brain, those would’ve been on the cool list if I hadn’t watched Dorothy and her friends at such a young and impressionable age.  Still gets me.

Nope, I choose late fall cloudless blue skies with just a whisper of wind.  No squirrels anywhere in sight.

Some content sourced from the 10/20/2020 CNN article, “Florida officials say several people charged in flying squirrel trafficking operation”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

For Heaven’s Snakes!

On a recent jog along the dusty unpaved roads of my neighborhood, I heard – and then saw – a couple of energetic dogs intent on chasing me down. They leaped off the front porch of a nearby house, tore across the wide-open acreage adjacent to the street, and came to a halt just inside what must have been an invisible fence. Barking and jumping, they made it clear I was intruding on their space. Not that I really noticed. I was scanning the road and the shoulder where I was running instead, looking for snakes.

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Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m on the lookout for snakes in the dead of winter, when wildlife should be hibernating.  Or maybe you’re wondering why I’m even running in an area where I might step on one.  Truth be told, it’s highly unlikely I’d come across a snake in my neighborhood, even in the middle of a hot summer running deep into the weeds.  Colorado has plenty of the slithery ones, but they prefer the rocky habitat of the foothills to the west (up against the Rocky Mountains).  Yet I still look for them out of a long-enforced habit.

Does my snake-dislike qualify as a phobia?  Probably.  It was my earliest face-to-face with a rattler that turned me to the dark side.  Summertime, backyard of our house – living in the close confines of a narrow canyon – and I whacked a tennis ball into the neighbor’s yard.  Didn’t mean to do that and needed the ball back.  Nobody was home next door but a side gate meant I could sneak around unnoticed.  As I moved beyond the house and into an unkempt grassy area, I spied the tennis ball and made a beeline for it.  What I didn’t see was the five-foot snake nestled in my path, coiled and ready to strike.  Peripheral vision or his rattle made me leap and hurdle at the last second.  I landed on the other side of him and kept running.  Someone came to my aid and the rattler was caught soon after, but the damage to my psyche was done.  Snakes = not good.

There are four species of poisonous snakes indigenous to the United States: copperhead, coral, cottonmouth, and rattlesnakes (of which there are several sub-species).  I’ve had the “pleasure” of encountering two of these four up close and personal.  In California I came across several more rattlesnakes after my tennis ball adventure, including those big, nasty diamondbacks on desert hikes with the Boy Scouts.  Then, years later, while visiting my wife’s family in North Carolina, I played a round of golf and discovered copperheads are fond of the short grass out there.  I approached my ball on one of the fairways and just about left my shoes when a long, black snake sprinted across my field of vision.  One of the locals I was playing with just laughed and said, “copperheads; get used to ’em kid!”  Whether that was sage advice or mind games, golf in North Carolina lost all appeal.

Snakes have been in their share of films.  I’ve never seen snakes on a plane and I never saw Snakes on a Plane so I’m still okay to fly.  A friend dragged me to Anaconda, which killed any interest in seeing the Amazon.  And in Raiders of the Lost Ark of course, Harrison Ford is asked “Indie, why does the floor move?”  The following scene with all those snakes is a close-up I wish they’d left on the editing room floor.

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Some say you’ve got to get your nightmares out in the open to get past them.  Maybe I’m doing that by writing about them.  Doesn’t mean I won’t keep looking for slithery ones when I run.