by Whit Gibbons

January 6, 2003

I am often asked "how do I get flying squirrels out of the attic?" My son recently asked me this question and did not consider "move," "borrow someone's ferret," or "wait till spring when you can catch a ratsnake" particularly helpful. So I reminded him of a time when he and his sisters were still living at home and we had a problem with these adorable nuisances.

Our four children slept upstairs near the attic, and one winter they complained constantly that "the squirrels scrambled between the walls all night." So I decided to set a mammal trap. I used a metal box with slam?shut doors that mammalogists use to capture small mammals alive, and the universal bait, peanut butter.

Flying squirrels are cute, with large, dark, attentive eyes. Attached to their front and back legs on each side of the body is a flap of fur-covered skin. When the legs are held out, the flap is extended and stretched flat, permitting the squirrels to glide through the air with the greatest of ease.

The trap worked, and while Carol was getting the children ready for school, I crawled from the attic to show off the catch. Everyone six humans and three four-legged pets gathered in the living room. All of us listened to the scurrying inside the metal trap.

Kahlua was our fat black cat, full of stealth. For an instant, the stilettos at the ends of her toes were unsheathed. I knew she would like to demonstrate her predatory skills. Martini was a vacuous-eyed cat, much loved for her inoffensiveness. Her predatory achievements consisted of two trophies. The first was a car struck robin I had seen dead on the street two days earlier. Martini presented it to us on the front porch. That same year she proudly brought us a bright yellow maple leaf, dropping it gently at our feet. B.D. was a big, cuddly shepherd, the delight of babies and little children, but a fearsome watchdog. His repertoire of barks ranged from a meek as a field mouse whimper to a roar that could jeopardize mail delivery to houses half a block away.

The nine of us, even mild?mannered Martini, gathered around the captured squirrel as I lifted the door of the trap to peek inside. Our first ecology lesson of the morning was that flying squirrels can squeeze through tiny openings. From that point things happened fast.

The squirrel glided from the trap to a chair. Children squealed. B.D. roared. Martini hid in a closet. And Kahlua made a graceful capture on the chair, but Jennifer grabbed Kahlua, who released the squirrel unharmed. Meanwhile, B.D. had knocked down Michael and Susan in an effort to get to the center of the action. The flying squirrel scampered under the sofa. Everyone was shouting advice. No one was listening.

As all of us except Martini headed toward the sofa; the squirrel retreated into the bedroom. Eight of us followed as B.D. and Kahlua led the pack. When I shoved my way through the door, I saw the squirrel reach the top of the curtains, take a quick assessment, and sail right over our heads, back into the hallway.

I rushed into the hall but saw no flying squirrel. We began an anxious search, looking under furniture and behind curtains. B.D. was sniffing. Kahlua pretended to be aloof and disinterested. No flying squirrel. Carol was not happy.

Things had calmed down, and still casting inquiring looks around the room, the children prepared to leave. Then Laura picked up her sweater. The squirrel glided out of a sleeve and into the dining room. More barking, more squealing, more loud advice. I finally caught the thing under the dining room table, got bitten on the hand, said some bad words, and hurled it into the air. In the blink of a cat's eye it scampered up the stairs, through the attic door I had left open.

Carol decreed we would trap no more flying squirrels. As an ecologist who had been defeated, I declared we should learn to live with our native wildlife. We still listened to flying squirrels all night until springtime, when ratsnakes became active.

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