The population of any given animal species in nature fluctuates over time in a geographic area. This is how nature works. In some years, a species may be abundant, while in other years, its population can be notably sparse in the same area. These are the ebbs and flows of nature. I was reminded of this the other night while I stood outside my house in the dark and cold, watching the flying squirrels that I love to see and feed.
For some reason, we people feel that nature should always be the same or the way we remember it to be. Or we think that the population of a given species should remain the same over time. But this isn’t the case. The flying squirrels in my yard are a prime example of these natural population fluctuations.
I have been feeding southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans) in my yard for about 10 years. At one point, I would get about 10 individual squirrels coming to a special feeder that I created specifically for them. They were bold and didn’t care that I may be standing very close by or taking pictures of their crazy antics. This went on for many years.
Then, about two years ago, the number of flying squirrels visiting my feeder each evening dropped dramatically. At one point, none were coming for the peanuts I set out. While I have no proof of why the population dropped so quickly and dramatically, I worried that a pair of barred owls that had moved into the neighborhood might have been responsible. The recent increase in the local raccoon population could also have contributed to the sharp decline in my flying squirrel visitors.
In addition to predators, there are any number of diseases that can cause a population crash of flying squirrels. Or a combination of predators and disease can trigger the tipping point for any given population in a geographic location, sending it plummeting. No matter the cause or causes, such fluctuations occur not only with my flying squirrels but also with wildlife populations in any location, be it my yard or your property.
For the better part of a year and a half, I didn’t get any flying squirrels coming to my feeding station. I was devastated. Now and then, I might get one flyer to show up in the wee hours of the morning, but nothing like I had in the past. I just didn’t see them like I used to.
The fact is these population changes in nature are natural and happen frequently. But, we humans often view these fluctuations as abnormal, attributing them to a specific event or a single predator. Deer hunting is a classic example of this “not like it used to be” phenomenon. When white-tailed deer populations fluctuate, we humans are quick to look for a villain to point to and say, “It’s all your fault.” We need something to blame it on without considering that populations change constantly in nature, and rarely is it just one event or one thing/predator that has caused the change.
I often get emails from agitated people upset that a particular bird species is no longer coming to their feeding station. Or they are used to seeing a specific kind of animal in the past that they don’t see anymore. These cases, such as the decline of red-headed woodpeckers, once among North America’s most abundant woodpeckers, or the eastern meadowlark, previously very common, illustrate significant population crashes. These species have dwindled to near extinction.
In relatively stable populations, such as flying squirrels or white-tailed deer, fluctuations in the population are normal and happen regularly, geographically speaking. In some species, the population ups and downs, such as the ruffed grouse, are predictable. It is well known that these birds go through 10-year cycles of their populations, and the predator birds and animals that feed on these grouse also follow a predictable population swing up and down, closely trailing the prey species numbers.
So, the other night, while proudly watching at least four southern flying squirrels coming into my feeder with no hesitation, I was simultaneously relieved and satisfied that nature is functioning the way it is intended to work. The facts are populations of any given species will go up and down within a reasonable and tolerable amount, no matter what the critter.
It is so good to have my flying squirrels building back in numbers around my property. It gives me a sense that everything is OK in my little corner of the natural world. Until next time …
Editor’s note: Stan Tekiela’s NatureSmart column appears twice a month in the Eden Prairie Local News. Tekiela is an author, naturalist, and wildlife photographer who travels extensively across the United States to study and capture wildlife images.
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