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Vagn Flyger, 83; Biologist Was Expert on Squirrels

Wildlife biologist Vagn Flyger watches squirrels from his home in Silver Spring last May.
Wildlife biologist Vagn Flyger watches squirrels from his home in Silver Spring last May. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Vagn Flyger, 83, a retired wildlife biologist at the University of Maryland who became a leading authority on squirrels after documenting what was dubbed the "Great Squirrel Migration of 1968," died Jan. 9 at his home in Silver Spring. He had congestive heart failure.

Dr. Flyger (whose full name is pronounced Vawn FLEE-gur) shuttled deer to the suburbs and pursued whales and polar bears in the Arctic. He said he found the squirrel far more accommodating, if only because one did not suffer a hernia from handling it.

Although the phenomenon of squirrel overpopulation was not unknown -- in the 1930s, the bushy-tailed rodents swam en masse across the Connecticut River -- Dr. Flyger made his name in fall 1968, when he chronicled squirrel patterns across the Eastern Seaboard.

At the time, thousands of gray squirrels were found crushed on highways and washed up dead along riverbanks. It was a disturbing sight that Dr. Flyger tried to explain less as a concerted migration than as an abundance of squirrels hunting for the best feeding ground.

He found that female and "sub-adult" squirrels comprised nearly all of the casualties, and that the squirrel frenzy probably resulted "from the successful reproductive season following the 1967 excellent crop of acorns."

As the squirrels sought out less-congested areas, they may have been confused by unfamiliar roadways and unable to cross streets safely. This probably caused their erratic zigzagging pattern that appeared suicidal, he said.

Dr. Flyger made contributions to the study of the Delmarva fox squirrel, among others; wrote for scientific journals; and proved helpful to wildlife documentarians, who found him entertaining.

From his home, which bordered Northwest Branch Park, he lured squirrels by smearing trees with a mixture of peanut butter and Valium. He collected the rodents he found passed out and tagged them with radio transmitters for further observation.

Sometimes he kept squirrels as pets, and sometimes he just ate them, once telling a visitor that they made a piquant substitute in any chicken recipe.

Vagn Folkman Flyger was born in Aalborg, Denmark, on Jan. 14, 1922. He was raised in Jamestown, a village in western New York where "at night we watched barred owls in the cemetery feeding night crawlers to their young." After Army service in Europe during World War II, he received a bachelor's degree in zoology from Cornell University (1948), a master's degree in wildlife management from Penn State University (1952) and a doctorate in vertebrate ecology from Johns Hopkins University (1956), where he wrote his thesis on behavior patterns of the gray squirrel.

By the late 1950s, he was working as a natural resources biologist for the state of Maryland. He succeeded in shuttling whitetail deer from the Aberdeen Proving Ground to more urban settings after the species was all but depleted, but he later acknowledged that few latter-day suburban gardeners appreciated his efforts. Farmers angry about deer eating their crops pleaded for help from Dr. Flyger. In what he described as an homage to his wartime experience in a combat engineer battalion, he built a minefield across farmland using M-80 firecrackers.

"After a week of explosions," he later wrote, "no deer dared enter the fields for over six months, even when the mines were removed. There was one disadvantage -- careless people had fingers blown off."

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