- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
I’ve seen a few southern flying squirrels “in the flesh” in southeastern Pennsylvania in my lifetime and heard about others from people who saw those charming little rodents, mostly at birdfeeders at night.
And I have seen several of them at various birdfeeders at night, through live cameras and our home computer screen. But, although they are common in woods locally, they are never seen by most people because these squirrels are strictly nocturnal.
Southern flying squirrels commonly inhabit forests in the eastern United States. And many of these adaptable creatures have adjusted to living in farmland woodlots and suburban areas with their many tall trees, especially oaks and hickories that were developed in woods.
Flying squirrels are 9 inches long, including a 3.5-inch tail. They have lovely brown fur on top, which camouflages them among tree trunks and limbs. They are white below with a black line along each flank from their front legs to their back legs. They have large, dark eyes that are beautiful and appealing and allow the squirrels to see well at night.
And they have a loose, fur-covered flap of skin on each side from wrist to ankle. Those flaps, stretched out, enable flying squirrels to glide up to 60 yards while steering with their furry tails, from one tree to another, upon which they land. They then immediately zip to the other side of the tree to avoid owls that may have noticed their flight.
Flying squirrels are quick at everything they do, which helps save their lives. But their dashing speed makes them difficult to enjoy.
Flying squirrels traditionally live in abandoned woodpecker holes and other tree cavities. But some of them adapted to inhabiting bird nesting boxes, attics, cabins, and other human-made structures. They hide in those shelters by day to avoid predators and come out to feed at night, the main reason few people see them.
Female flying squirrels annually raise two litters of three young each, on average, in their homes. And during winter, several of these cute little squirrels pack into a hollow to share body heat.
Like all squirrels, flying squirrels consume acorns, nuts, seeds, and berries in woodlands. And like their cousins, they store food in tree hollows and other sheltering places to be eaten in winter when much food is often buried by snow.
Permanent-resident great horned owls, barred owls, and screech owls prey on flying squirrels. I’ve seen a few flying squirrels being caught at birdfeeders through live cameras and our computer screen. One can see the squirrel, or two or three of them, landing at night on a feeder. Soon an owl, usually a screech owl, sweeps in swiftly to grab a squirrel, flying away to kill and ingest it elsewhere.
Flying squirrels are cute little critters, and they are adaptable. It is surprising where some of them live in southeastern Pennsylvania. Maybe they are living near some readers.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.