Take a field mouse, stretch it to chipmunk size, give it a squirrel’s bushy tail, night-vision goggles and a daredevil’s wingsuit, and you’d have a super squirrel—aka the southern flying squirrel.
Although flying squirrels are quite common, most people have never seen one. That’s because they’re nocturnal. At night, while gray and fox squirrels are curled in their leafy nests dreaming of acorns, flying squirrels dive through the dark, gathering the real thing. To navigate at night, flying squirrels have huge eyes that catch the faintest of moonlight. And when it gets really dark, flying squirrels use long, sensitive whiskers to feel their way around.
If you have oak or hickory trees in your yard, chances are you also have flying squirrels.
When a flying squirrel decides to glide, it climbs to a high perch then plunges spread eagle into thin air. Wheee! It looks like your crazy uncle doing a belly buster at the pool, only the squirrel doesn’t go splat. Draped between the squirrelly skydiver’s wrists and ankles is a flap of skin called the patagium. When stretched, the patagium billows like a furry parachute. By changing the slack in the patagium and steering with its long, flat tail, the squirrel swoops around branches and sails safely to its destination. With a lofty launch site and a good tailwind, flying squirrels can glide as far as four school buses parked end to end!
Flying squirrels can’t pack on fat for winter like other squirrels. So when temperatures plummet, flying squirrels huddle together in tree cavities, relying on each others’ bodies for warmth. Doing so can warm their dens by 30 degrees or more. Nineteen squirrels were once found snuggled together in Missouri, and 50 were packed into a single tree in Illinois!
Flying squirrels live throughout Missouri in forests, towns, city parks, even backyards— wherever there are large oak or hickory trees. They like to sleep 20 to 30 feet up in old woodpecker holes and other tree cavities. In cities, flying squirrels sometimes live in attics and birdhouses.
In March, female flying squirrels give birth to litters of about four babies. Newborns are naked, pink and weigh about the same as six paperclips. Mom takes good care of her babies, feeding them milk and wrapping them in her patagium so they stay cozy. She’ll try to fight off predators even if they’re larger than she is. One mama squirrel was seen carrying her babies, one by one, away from a forest fire and getting singed in the process. When young squirrels are about 6 weeks old, they attempt their first flight. Sometimes mom has to give them a little push to get them to leap, but once airborne, the youngsters know exactly how to glide. After all, they’re super squirrels.
Acorns and hickory nuts fill most of the space in a flying squirrel’s tummy. But flying squirrels aren’t picky eaters. They’ll happily munch moths, beetles, caterpillars, fruits, berries, garden vegetables, tree buds, tree sap, mushrooms, baby mice, baby birds, eggs and birdseed. It isn’t a one-sided eating spree, though. Owls, snakes, weasels, foxes and bobcats eat flying squirrels— when they can catch one.
Nichole LeClair Terrill