Not all creatures that fly have wings and some of them may be visiting your bird feeders without you ever seeing them. I’m referring to Flying Squirrels. These small, mainly nocturnal animals are misnamed because they don’t actually fly, but rather glide from tree to tree or in some cases from tree to bird feeder.
If you put bird seed out in the evening and in the morning it is gone, chances are good that you have flying squirrels living nearby. The two common species in the U.S. are the Southern Flying Squirrel and the Northern Flying
Squirrel. The Southern is found in the hardwood forests of all states east of the Mississippi River. The Northern is found in the coniferous forests in parts of the NE, all across Canada and into Alaska as well as some western states.
These small rodents are about the size of a chipmunk and weigh two to three ounces with the Northern being larger than the Southern. They are winsome looking creatures with dense, glossy olive brown fur above and white below and large dark brown eyes necessary for their nocturnal lifestyle. Their tails are wide and flat and half as long as their body. These they use like a rudder, helping them steer as they sail through the air and land softly with their back feet touching down first. Their ‘wings’ are flaps of skin called “Patagia” that stretch between their front and back legs, so that when they extend these limbs, the membranes act like a parachute, help
them steer and control their leaps. Some humans have attempted to imitate this behavior in a high risk sport known as BASE jumping, with limited success. The squirrels are able to turn almost 180 degrees in mid-air, gliding as far as 150 feet, though most glides are between 20 and 30 feet.
Because of their unique anatomy, they are not as quick on their feet as non-flying squirrels and so they are more vulnerable to predators such as birds of prey, cats and dogs; another good reason to be active at night rather than the daytime. It is possible to observe them by shining a red light onto your feeders, especially if you have one attached to a tree, but they will visit free standing feeders if they are available. One time I went to fill a feeder that was designed like a barn and had a top that lifted up and luckily I looked before I poured the sunflower bird seeds into it, because crouched down and looking at me with those cute ‘bug’ eyes was a flying squirrel.
While they eat a variety of nuts and fruit, they will also eat fungi, eggs, and carrion. They are also partial to shelled sunflower seed and suet. If you have any trees will hollow cavities, there’s a good chance the flying squirrels have taken up residence. In the winter they huddle together for warmth and in early spring mating occurs, followed about five weeks later with a litter of 3-5 tiny blind young.
By Kate Crowley