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Population changes in Flying Squirrels

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

February 19, 2024

The population of any given animal species in nature goes up and down over time in a geographic area. This is how nature works. Some years is species is plentiful and other years the population is dismal in a given 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 feel that the population of a given species should remain the same over time. But this just isn’t the case. My Flying Squirrels in my yard are a good example of these classic population swings.

I have been feeding Southern Flying Squirrels (Glaucomys volans) for about 10 years in my yard. At one point I would get about 10 individual squirrels coming to a special feeder that I made just for the flyers. 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 2 years ago, the number of flyers coming into my feeder each evening dropped dramatically. And, at one point I had no flyers showing up for the peanuts that I put out for them to eat. 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. Having thought that, it is also possible that the Raccoons that recently had increased in the neighborhood also could be responsible for the dramatic decline in my Flying Squirrel population.

In addition to these predators, there are also any number of diseases that can cause a population crash of Flying Squirrels. Or a combination of predators and disease together can trigger the tipping point for any given population in a geographic location, sending it plummeting. No matter what the cause, or causes, it happens and not just to my Flying Squirrels but any population of wildlife and in any place like 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. Every 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 are natural and happen all the time. But we humans for some reason feel that it’s not normal. That it was caused by one specific event or worse yet one specific predator. Deer hunting is a classic example of this “not like it used to be” phenomena. When White-tailed Deer populations fluctuate, we humans are quick to look for a villain to point to and say “its all your fault”. We need something to blame it on without considering that populations change all the time 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 who are upset that a particular species of bird 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. While some of these are good examples of population crashes, such as Red-headed Woodpeckers, which where once the most numerous woodpeckers in North America, or the Eastern Meadowlark which was once very common, are simply no longer around because their populations have crashed and are nearly extinct.

In populations that are relatively stable, such as Flying Squirrels or White-tailed Deer, fluctuations of the population are normal and happen on a regular basis, geographically speaking. In some species the population ups and downs are predictable such as Ruffed Grouse. 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 4 Southern Flying Squirrels coming into my feeder with no hesitation, I was simultaneously relieved and also satisfied that nature is functioning the way nature 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…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels extensively to study and captures images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com and www.facebook.com. He can be contacted via his website www.naturesmart.com.

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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