by Stan Tekiela
October 15, 2004
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
It was as dark as a night can be when I first heard the faint bird-like calls. They were coming from the top of a near-by tree. At first I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. Songbirds are usually silent at night and this was not an owl making this sound. After a moment I realized I was listening to the calls of a Flying Squirrel. Indeed, this was a special night.
There are two species of flying squirrel—Northern and Southern. The Northern variety (Glaucomys sabrinus) inhabits conifer forests across the northern portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The Southern variety (Glaucomys volans) lives in deciduous forests just south of the Northern’s range. Both of these squirrels are New World animals, which mean they are only found in the America’s. That’s not to say that Europe doesn’t have any Flying Squirrels, they do, just not the species that occurs here in North America.
Flying squirrels are the only nocturnal member of the Squirrel family. And like many other animals their common name doesn’t describe them very accurately. They are not true flyers because they have no ability to maintain or increase altitude. However they are excellent at gliding and can maneuvering around objects during their decent. Technically they should be called Gliding Squirrels. Just for the record, bats are the only mammals that have the ability to fly.
Northern Flying Squirrels are larger than the Southern, measuring only 5-6 inches. Northern’s are 7-9" long. Both have a fluffy, flatten tail that is 3-6 inches long. The hairs on the tail extend out from only the sides giving it a flat shape and making it useful as a rudder or air break.
Cute and fuzzy, they are covered with a very dense gray to brown fur that is incredibly soft. Like other squirrels they have a white belly. However the most notable aspect of this tiny glider is the loose fold of skin called the patagium, which stretches between the front and back legs to form a makeshift wing.
To become airborne, they leap into the air and spread their legs and hold their tail straight out behind. The distance they can glide depends upon the height from which they jumped. The higher their departure the further they can glide. Most glides are between 20-50 feet long.
Just before landing they use their tail as an air break and land facing up the tree trunk. They immediately scramble to the far side of the landing tree, presumably to escape any flying predators such as an owl that might be in hot pursuit.
Flying Squirrels are strictly nocturnal which explains why we hardly see this gliding guru. They have large eyes to help them see in the dark. Unlike other squirrels, the Flying Squirrel rarely travels on the ground; so don’t look for their tracks in the snow. However, like other squirrels they do eat seeds and nuts but don’t burry them in the ground. Instead they cache the extra nuts in holes and crevices in trees. In addition they eat fruit, fungi, tree buds, bird eggs and even baby birds. They are the most carnivorous of the squirrels sometimes killing small birds or mice and sometimes eating dead flesh (carrion).
They remain active all year long. Mothers have
one to two litters of young per year. Each litter
contains three to five young, which are borne
blind, naked and helpless after only a 40-day
gestation. It’s a gregarious animal with many
individuals living together. Homes consist mainly
of old woodpecker holes or abandoned Gray Squirrel
nests. However they sometimes take up residents
in birdhouses, Wood Duck boxes and occasionally
in the attic of homes. They live only 3-5 years.
Until next time……
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