Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Night Flier

High in an old pine tree, in an old woodpecker hole, a southern flying squirrel lies huddled with his family. He wakes to a reveille of silence - the pause between the canticles of the day birds and the acoustic strums of crickets and frogs.

Eager to break his fast, he crouches on the edge of his doorway and dives. Freefalling, he flattens his tail and steers his body onto the vertical surface of a tree. He grabs hold and hurries to the opposite side, looking back to be sure his path was not tracked. Throughout the night he flies and lands, always circling around the tree to elude owls, foxes, minks, raccoons, snakes, and others who would eat him.

An accomplished acrobat, he prances along a horizontal branch high above the forest floor. He knows his territory. He knows every available cavity and refuge. When the alarms sound that a predator is near, he can quickly take cover. Now, the chirps and squeaks from his fellow flying squirrels assure him that all is well in their own sections. He, too, twitters and chips, reporting the semblance of safety in his vicinity.

In the next twelve hours he will feast on a banquet of lichens, fungi, seeds, and berries. He will raid rodent nests and devour the infants alive. On shorter, warmer nights, he might steal and eat bird eggs and even baby birds. Now, the growing darkness and falling temperatures prompt him to hoard and hide acorns and pecans. Some he will bury under leaves on the floor. Some he will deposit in communal caches in the cavities of trees.

Before his next jump he expels the baggage from his bowels. The jetsam contains spores and seeds which will grow into new organisms. The fungi he disperses are vital to the forest, fixing nitrogen in the soil so that it can be absorbed by tree roots. The seedlings he plants are equally important. They feed browsing animals and renew the forest.

The pre-dawn intermission in Nature's symphony cues him to return home and rest. He has survived this night and will live to fly again.