Hit it with the hockey stick! 

By Susan Hamersley, Whistler Naturalists

"Hit it with the hockey stick. It’s only a packrat!"

As someone who catches spider in the bathtub and sets them free, I was definitely not going to hit this rodent at the birdfeeder with a hockey stick. Also, I was pretty sure our nightly visitor wasn’t a packrat. I thought it was a chinchilla – though a packrat was more reasonable. Guess I liked saying chinchilla better. And this being Whistler, who knows what exotic escaped pets could be feeding.

Having experienced packrats before, I knew that one of their defining characteristics is a musky scent. So the most logical thing to do seemed to be to go and smell it. I opened the patio door and the dog and I stealthily approached the eye level birdfeeder.

The packrat/chinchilla stopped eating to observe our approach through its beautiful, round, shiny eyes, which seemed to fill with amusement. As we mighty hunters approached to within sniffing distance we were able to confirm no unpleasant odour. Meanwhile our guest decided we were of no interest and went back to eating.

We had now dismissed the packrat theory, but I was unsure what a chinchilla smelled like. More research required.

The brave hunting dog stayed outside guarding "something" while being ignored by our rodent guest. This was not all that helpful to the dog’s ego as she was wearing her most threatening golden retriever glare. (You know the one that says "if you aren’t careful, I’ll roll on you, drool a bit and then promptly go to sleep and snore loudly!")

The next research consisted of consulting anyone else interested as to what animal we could have visiting our birdfeeder nightly. Most people chose the packrat explanation given by my husband (who wanted me to hit it with the hockey stick) over my well-crafted chinchilla theory. But none of the locals could explain the beautiful flat furry tail. It was only when we got some photos back that we discovered we were hosting a northern flying squirrel.

It turns out that northern flying squirrels are common across most of Canada. They’re about 35 cm long, have a light brown back with hints of grey, and have grey underparts.

Flying squirrels have a unique fold of skin that extends laterally to the level of their ankles and wrists and allows them to glide up to 100 metres. They have large, dark, shiny eyes and a flat tail that acts as a rudder when they "fly." It is important to note that they look nothing like a packrat!

Northern flying squirrels don’t hibernate but their nocturnal activities mean they’re rarely seen. They mainly eat lichens and fungi as well as conifer cones. Apparently they also enjoy birdseed.

Now that this rodent has been successfully identified, we need to discover what animal is taking nightly trips through our walls – regularly waking us at 5 a.m. chewing our beams. Perhaps it’s a packrat, but it sounds like a beaver to me.

Upcoming Whistler Naturalist Events :

January 27 — Live Owls and Hawks. Ted Williams from Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society (OWL) is bringing a Barred Owl and a kestrel. This kid-friendly event is in the Toad Hall room at Myrtle Phillip Community School from 11 a.m. until about 1 p.m. Children under 12 free. Adults $2 (members), $6 (non-members). Contact Paul Duncan (932-3892) for details.

February 3 — Monthly Bird Walk . Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 8 a.m. Contact Michael Thompson (932-5010) for more information.

Web sites of the Week: True lovers of big-toothed mammals can visit The Rodent Zone (http://members.tripod.com/~CloveApple/rodent.html.) To get details about a squirrel conspiracy to take over the world, try: www.hevanet.com/benh/sqclan/index.html.

Sightings and Memberships: NatureSpeak is prepared by the Whistler Naturalists. To become a member or to report unusual animal sightings, contact Lee Edwards (905-6448; e-mail: leighe11@hotmail.com). If possible, document sightings with a photo. We’re also always looking for columns to appear in this space — topics can include anything related to nature in Whistler. Contact Bob Brett (932-8900).

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