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."
Using a new tranquilizing dart gun, Dr. Flyger had successes in aiding research of large animals by zapping them with succinylcholine chloride, a surgical muscle relaxant. He called this catch-and-release method a great improvement over killing animals to study them.
He worked first with woodchucks and deer but moved on to whales during Arctic expeditions sponsored by a Norwegian whaling company. The first summer, in 1961, was a bust because of rough weather. The following summer, Dr. Flyger wowed a band of weary Eskimos whose forbears had struggled for centuries to harpoon whales and wrestle them into submission.
Dr. Flyger shot a lethal dose of the tranquilizer at the whale, which rolled over dead. He pronounced the whale meat, which remained edible after the injection, "delicious."
In the mid-1960s, he returned to the Arctic regions to study polar bears by tranquilizing them and then tagging them with radio transmitters. Looking back, he viewed his initial working method as a bit naive and dangerous.
He waited on the icy plain as two planes worked to drive the frightened bear in his direction. When the bear was 40 yards away, he shot the syringe gun and hoped that the succinylcholine chloride would take effect sooner rather than later. Among his scientific observations: It was possible to sweat at 50 degrees below zero.
He joined the University of Maryland faculty in 1964 and spent the next 23 years teaching full time, sometimes with a squirrel on his shoulder. He also took side trips to the Antarctic to tag Adelie penguins and study Weddell seals.
Dr. Flyger was known for an impish and teasing humor, but he was also an obliging friend. He once bought a $5 ordination certificate through the California-based Universal Life Church to marry two colleagues.
His marriage to Louise Clark Flyger ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 38 years, Beverly Beckett Flyger of Silver Spring; a daughter from the first marriage, Kirsten N. Enzinger of Harwood, Md.; a stepdaughter, Viveca Morris of Winston-Salem, N.C.; and three grandchildren.
A son from the first marriage, Eric Flyger, died in 1965. A stepson, Stefan Stackig, died in 1979.