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They screwed the slender wooden box to an oak tree two weeks ago, hoping Lincoln’s newest species — the southern flying squirrel — would make it a home.

But the instructors at the School of Natural Resources on East Campus haven’t encountered any of the critters in their new digs yet.

They did find possible evidence of visits — tiny tooth marks on the peanuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds they’d left in the box.

The entrance is too narrow for the more common fox squirrel to get in. A small bird could have squeezed through, but it couldn’t have left tooth marks, said Larkin Powell, a professor of conservation biology. That left the possibility that a mouse found the meal.

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Still, a trail camera Powell trained at the tree caught nighttime images of the nocturnal animal scurrying around the trunk, and then leaping off a limb.

“I’m comfortable saying there’s evidence they’re using that box,” he said.

Powell got involved last month, after an East Campus tree crew taking down a burr oak encountered four flying squirrels living in a hollow limb.

And that surprised him, because he didn’t know Lincoln to be home to flying squirrels; the nearest population was nearly 100 miles to the southeast, in and around Indian Cave State Park.

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He contacted the state Game and Parks Commission, which wasn’t as surprised; since 2018, its biologists had confirmed 11 flying squirrel sightings around the city.

After the East Campus discovery made the news, Powell learned of other encounters.

Several sightings from the Country Club Neighborhood, including a homeowner who’d had six in his attic last year. A report from Fremont. One from an East Campus-area yard.

“A lot of reports,” he said.

But the School of Natural Resources hopes to field more, so they can learn all they can about the species. It recently launched a website — Southern flying squirrels: a citizen science project for Nebraska — with a pair of goals.

First, it’s encouraging anyone who sees a flying squirrel to fill out a reporting form, with the location and description of the encounter and — ideally — a photo of the animal.

“Any sightings people have will tell us how widespread they are,” he said. “And it would also start to answer questions about how long they’ve been in Lincoln, if they’re really widespread, or if there’s just a couple of little hotspots.”

It’s already working. The site got its first report Thursday morning from a homeowner near 40th and Normal, who included photos of flying squirrels squatting in his birdhouse taken in 2020 and 2021.

The site also has detailed plans for building and installing nesting boxes. The design was perfected by Don Althoff, a flying squirrel researcher in Ohio who has built and installed 400 boxes. But he also has East Campus connections — he earned his master’s degree there in 1978 and, in the past few weeks, has shared his expertise with Powell and others.

Powell hopes homeowners use the plans to build their own boxes, and that they agree to participate in the research project. That could mean allowing UNL students and instructors and Game and Parks staff to come inspect the boxes, or it could be as easy as emailing any flying squirrel activity updates.

The website also includes a reminder: Flying squirrels are considered a threatened species in Nebraska, and shouldn’t be disturbed without a special permit.

“And you don’t want to handle them anyway, because they have nice big teeth, even though they’re little cute critters.”

The lone nesting box on East Campus will soon be joined by more. Once students return for the spring semester, Powell and School of Natural Resources director John Carroll plan to host what they’re calling a box-raising party.

“We’ll have the pieces, and have the students put them together and help put them up.”

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For plans to build and install a nesting box, or to report flying squirrels for part of a research project, go to: go.unl.edu/flyingsquirrel

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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