Patrick and Nancy Galloway see lots of wildlife at their 10-acre farm in the Steelmanville section of Upper Township.

They're familiar with deer, foxes, wild turkeys - "There's even a white wild turkey that lives here," Patrick Galloway said - and the tracks of the elusive coyotes.

But they recently encountered a strange little mammal with oversized eyes like an alien, one that remains alien to most people even though it lives among us: the southern flying squirrel.

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The Galloways happened to be outside when an old birdhouse fell out of a tree.

"We saw what looked like two young squirrels and their mother scurrying away and up a tree. We didn't think much about it," Patrick Galloway said.

A week later, while Galloway was putting a new roof on his house, a neighbor pointed out a squirrel had fallen out of a nearby ceramic, acorn-shaped nest and was now perched atop it.

"We stared at it and it looked like some mythological creature," Galloway said. "It had a bat-like face and loose skin on its sides like a basset hound."

Gray and red squirrels rule the trees during the day, but when the sun sets, the night shift of southern flying squirrels takes over.

Flying squirrels are tiny - just 7 to 10 inches long, including their tails. Their large black eyes allow them to see in the dark.

They don't actually fly, despite the cartoon antics of Rocket J. Squirrel, but are accomplished gliders.

Spreading their loose skin with their four limbs and steering with their flat tails, they can glide as far as 80 yards from the top of one tree to the bottom of another. They land softly, using their tail as a brake and arching their skin like a parachute, then scramble around the tree in case a predator has seen them.

Now that Galloway, who is the executive chef at Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House, has located one, he's been enjoying its aerial antics.

"It comes out at dusk and looks like a strange bird flying. It launches straight out 10 to 15 feet and glides down to a small tree," he said. "I've cleaned up my binoculars for a clearer look."

Flying squirrels have a diet similar to their daytime counterparts, mainly acorns and other tree nuts, seeds and fruits. But they're a little more likely to eat bird eggs, birds and carrion.

Since flying squirrels are active at night, their main natural predators are owls, along with foxes, raccoons and other mammals. Wherever people live, house cats probably are the principal threat.

If you're in the woods at night, you may catch a glimpse of a flying squirrel on its downward glide. Good sightings almost all result from their habit of nesting in birdhouses.

My best - and worst - view of flying squirrels was as they chewed on the ropes of my hammock as I tried to sleep on a steep hillside in a deep Pennsylvania forest years ago.

Flying squirrels typically nest in former woodpecker holes, but you can buy or make a house for them. The key is that the entrance hole should be exactly 1ΒΌ-inch in diameter.

One caution, however, if you also maintain bird feeders: Ordinary squirrel baffles are no impediment for squirrels that can fly.

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