Posted: February 24, 2014, 4 a.m. EST
© Courtesy Mark Skulborstad
Penny the flying squirrel was captured by the camera in mid-glide.
One night in eastern Texas, Christal Skulborstad looked out her window and saw what appeared to be a colony of bats swarming around some woodpecker food she put out earlier. But what would bats be doing with woodpecker food? She wandered out to take a closer look and then called for her husband, Mark, to come see what she found. Mark remembers that spring night in 2008 very clearly, "I wandered out and she shined a flashlight on the tree trunk. All of a sudden, a flyer darted down to take something. She didn't know what it was, I did. I was speechless.” And so began their flying squirrel saga.
More encounters with the enchanting creatures soon followed. Christal and a neighbor both witnessed the Skulborstad’s Yankee Flipper (a squirrel-proof bird feeder) curiously moving when no birds or wind were present. Christal investigate the "haunted feeder” one day when it was shaking. That’s when liquid gold fell on her from above. She looked up to see a colony of Southern flying squirrels gliding from tree to tree and then taking turns diving down to the feeder to give it a good hit and shake so that the food fell to the ground for them to eat. It was the most dazzling and astonishing example of teamwork she had ever seen. And the golden gifts from above? Evidently the flyers didn’t approve of a lesser being’s presence near their food. To declare dominance, they had begun to pee on her. They actually followed her and continued with the "gifts” until she was far enough away from the feeder to satisfy them. From then on, neither she nor Mark could ever be driven away from these adorable, fascinating creatures.
The Skulborstad’s had some previous experience with rescuing other types of wildlife during their lives, especially Christal who grew up on a farm where kids brought her everything from injured birds to antelope and everything in between. But in more recent years, the couple gained experience with various species of squirrels and focused on them specifically. They are self-educated and were also taught by licensed wildlife rehabbers on how to care for them. Eventually, flying squirrels inhabited not only their yard, but their home and hearts as well.
© Courtesy Christal Skulborstad
Bullwinkle was their first rescue and won the hearts of the Skulborstads.
A couple of months after the Skulborstad’s initial introduction to wild flying squirrels, an elderly man down the street who knew their reputation with rescuing animals brought them a baby squirrel his cat had caught.
"He brought it over in a small box, and I knew immediately it was a flyer,” Mark said. "It was a 5-week-old male, which we named Bullwinkle. That little guy was the joy of our life. By this time, we had found The Squirrel Board.”
The Squirrel Board is the most popular message board online for pet squirrel owners as well as rescuers. Mark said Judy Call was their go-to person for raising Bullwinkle. "She was well regarded on the board and only lived a short distance from us,” he said.
The Skulborstads said that Judy Call (also known as Muffinsquirrel) was a great teacher and inspiration to the flying squirrel community at large. She lost her battle to cancer several years ago, but her invaluable wisdom regarding pet and wild flying squirrels lives on through others passing down her knowledge.
Sadly, Bullwinkle died in an accident many months later. The Skulborstads were devastated, but after taking some time to grieve, they welcomed two baby flyers into their lives in 2009. They moved on to rescuing and rehabbing wild flying squirrels, taking in unwanted pet flyers, re-homing them when able and even breeding them.
© Courtesy Mark Skulborstad
Flying squirrels have specific needs, and the Skulborstads are doing what they can to educate new owners of pet flying squirrels so that the flyers enjoy long, healthy lives.
Currently there are 14 flyers in their home. Some are slated for release. Christal said that successful release of the healthy, young, wild ones is a happy thing, but it can be difficult to say goodbye. "The flyers are very different than other squirrels in that Mark doesn’t want to let them go.”
Anyone can be an animal champion. Unfortunately, these unusual small animals have very few champions, despite the fact that they are often kept as pets. The Skulborstads are champions for flying squirrels. Even though Christal is plagued by physical disabilities and Mark works full-time in aircraft maintenance, they manage to find time to help flyers and their owners. Hobbies are often pushed aside. Their work with flyers comes first, and that’s the bottom line.
Cristal said they primarily work with The Squirrel Board, National Flying Squirrel Association and a new board, Squirrel Nation. "Mainly, we try to pass on our own experiences and offer opinions to assist others. We aren't in any way experts with flyers. We can only give opinions based on our own experience. Many members are equally qualified with flyers, and their thoughts are always welcome. I know a lot of folks talk about us being experts. Part of this is due to experience we've gained, and I think part is we don't act as experts and tell people what to do. We try to express an opinion, and give people additional options. We aren't experts; we just have experience we try to share.”
© Courtesy Mark Skulborstad
The flying squirrel on the left is two weeks old. The middle image shows flying squirrels at 3.5 weeks old, and the image on the right is a flying squirrel at 4.5 weeks old.
The Skulborstads do not recommend that people breed and sell flyers because far too many people buy them as novelty pets and don’t research proper care for them. Unfortunately, that often leads to deaths at very early ages. They believe pet stores should not sell them as they are often ignorant of their care as well. "I only wish that people who do purchase them, and those who sell them, would educate themselves as to the proper care,” Mark said. "There are some reputable breeders, unfortunately very few.”
In addition to those complications, people are not always aware that flying squirrels are illegal pets in some places or that they might need a permit to own one. In those cases, bringing home one of these darlings can lead to legal issues and difficulty in finding a vet who will treat them. And so educating others about these lively and entertaining animals in captivity as well as in the wild is one of this couple’s main missions in life.
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