Flying Without Wings

A Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) ...

Image via Wikipedia

The creek acts as a border between our property and our neighbor’s land. In the winter, they have a multitude of feeders along the creeks edge that attract a wide variety of songbirds. On one dark evening, our neighbors noticed a “bird” flying to one of the feeders. Illumination of the area proved this “bird” to be some sort of squirrel. Upon careful study, the nocturnal squirrel was identified to be a Southern Flying Squirrel.

English: author: a. freeman Northern Flying sq...

Image via Wikipedia

The Southern flying squirrel, Glaucomys volans, is Illinois’ smallest, native, tree squirrel weighing in at two ounces and having a length of between 8 5/8 to 9 3/4 inches. Appearing larger than it actually is, this squirrel possesses flaps of skin or gliding membranes called a patagium. The patagium extends from the front to back paws on both sides of its body, enabling it to glide for distances of up to 150 feet. While the function of its flattened tail is not fully understood, it seems to act as a balancing organ during a glide in the same way that the tail of a kite stabilizes it in midair. In addition to acting as a balancing organ, the tail is used in the same manner as a plane’s airfoil when braking for a landing. The patagium is edged with short black hair while the silky fur on its back and tail are tawny-brown to grey-brown in color and its underside is covered with white fur.

Another distinguishing physical characteristic that helps differentiate the flying squirrel from other non-gliding squirrels are their large eyes. These nocturnal rodents’ eyes are situated on the sides of their head so they can triangulate their distance from any direction for quick escapes or just to determine the distance from point A to point B. These large eyes also contain a wide pupil with an increased retinal surface and rods that collect the ambient light needed for good night vision.

Excellent night vision is also required for nighttime food forging in trees and on the ground. As omnivores, the Southern flying squirrels eat a variety of foodstuffs. Some foods like nuts, acorns, seeds, berries, fruit, and tree buds are staples in their diets. However, often, geographic and seasonal availability of a given food source determines what the flying squirrels eat. In addition to “staple foods”, the flying squirrels have been known to eat bark, fungus, moths, junebugs,  spiders, beetles, young mice, bird eggs and nestlings.

Flying squirrels store food for winter use; in fact, it is believed that one flying squirrel can store up to 15,000 nuts in one season. They are considered scatter-hoarders. Once flying squirrels have located a food item, they either promptly eat it or mark it with chemicals from the glands on their lips and store it for retrieval at a later time. Flying squirrels commonly use notches and crevices in tree branches, natural cavities, shallow burrows in the forest floor under leaf litter, and under logs to store their cache. They use their incisors to bang the food into the selected storage spot. If they decide to consume the food immediately, non-lactating, flying squirrels bring food into their nests or eat within the relative safety of a nearby nest.

Distribution Range for Flying Squirrels image from winterwoman.net

The Southern flying squirrel’s nests are found in wooded parks and residential areas, however, they are more commonly found in the mature trees of mixed hardwood and coniferous forests, their preferred habitat. They also choose to inhabit areas with nearby water and nut sources. Their geographic range extends from the eastern United States north to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and west to the Great Plains. For more detailed information regarding the Southern Flying Squirrel’s  distribution range visit flyingsquirrels.com  and winterwoman.net.

 Canada has designated the Glaucomys volans an “at risk species”, however, the U.S. has not given this mammal any special protection status. Nevertheless, reduction in forest destruction is believed to be pivotal in the maintaining the Flying squirrel population throughout Canada and the United States. All types of squirrels play an important ecosystem role in forest regeneration. Regeneration is accomplished when a forgotten cache of seeds or nuts sprouts and grows into trees. Southern flying squirrels also feed on tree buds  and this pruning is believed to stimulate tree growth. The squirrels also feed on wood-eating insects, which help to protect the forest from the debilitating effects of parasitic infestation. Flying squirrels are also an important part of the food web, being preyed upon by several species of avian and mammalian predators such as owls, hawks, foxes, domestic cats, bobcats, raccoon, weasels, and timber snakes.

Southern Flying Squirrel photo by Jim Schuler

 If you are interested in attracting these small mammals to your backyard, set up an open feeding station filled with their favorite foods that include a variety of nut meats and sunflower seeds. Construction of nesting boxes as artificial nesting sites, in sparsely forested areas lacking natural cavities, will also help attract squirrels to the area. Nesting box construction plans for flying squirrel nesting and aggregate boxes can be found on the flyingsquirrels.net web page.
Related articles
Resources
Craven, Scott. “Tree Squirrels in Wisconsin: benefits and problems.” University of Wisconsin-Extension and Cooperative Extension College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, N.D. Web. 19 Jan. 2012.
“Flying Squirrels.” Newton: Ask a Scientist and Argonne National Laboratories, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois Nature Bulletins, 23 Jan. 1965 Web. 20 Jan. 2012.
Kernan, Michael. “How Squirrels Fly.” Science and Nature, Smithsonian, Feb. 2001. Web. 19 Jan. 2012.
Linzey, Don and Brecht, Christy. ” Glaucomys volans. ” Discover Life, Polistes Corp., 20 Jun. 2002. Web. 20 Jan. 2012.
Patterson, Steve. “Flying Squirrels.” Outcomes-based  Forest Ecology and Nature Entertainment. 2000 Web. 20 Jan.2012.
“Southern Flying Squirrel. ” BioKIDS: Kids’ Inquiry of Diverse Species, University of Michigan, N.D. Web. 21 Jan. 2012.
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