Squirrels of The Night

It’s quite common for most of us to see hefty balls of gray fluff with excited bushy tails zip across yards in search of a spot to bury a morsel of food in a location they may or may not remember later. Eastern gray squirrels might also be seen scampering up trees throughout the day to eat dogwood berries, Bradford Pear fruit or munch on a pine cone, but it’s rare to possibly never, that we have the opportunity to see a Southern Flying Squirrel, also called Flyers, in the wild. They are the oldest and smallest living line of modern squirrels, and in contrast to Eastern Grays, they are nocturnal. So, when we head for bed, their day (or night) is just getting started. When an adult Flyer or babies are admitted to The Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC, it is a very big deal! Our fourth SFS, which is an unusual influx this year, was recently admitted by a gentleman who’s cat did a “bad thing,” but luckily the infant was unharmed. The female pup checked in fully furred but with eyes still closed and only 24 grams. She won’t be releasable until she reaches 70-80 grams and is capable of eating on her own. They are tiny, only grow to one fourth the size of an adult Eastern Gray and are too cute for words, as you can see! Fortunately, this infant will thrive on formula we also use for Eastern Grays and will gradually be introduced to nuts, berries, veggies, seeds, mushrooms, flowers and bark. As SFS’s are the only carnivorous member of the squirrel family, we will also add insects and mealworms to her diet. Flying Squirrels have also been known to eat bird eggs and carrion in the wild, but that won’t happen at the shelter. And so is the way of the wild, even if they are cute and tiny! Flyers don’t really fly, they very gracefully, glide. They have a furry membrane called a patagium that extends between the front and rear legs, which they use like Batman’s cape, to glide through the air. The flap of skin on each side of their body enables them to parachute from tree to tree. They use their flat and furry tail like a rudder, controlling their direction, allowing them to make 90 to 180 degree turns in the air. They are so beloved in the western part of the state that artificial trees were erected along the roads’ shoulders to help flying squirrels glide across a highway that exceeded their gliding ability without the aid of alternative trunks and limbs on which to land.
Southern Flying Squirrels prefer mixed forests that provide old trees with cavities for nesting to include abandoned woodpecker holes, but have also been known to nest in bluebird boxes, stacked cordwood piles, build a nest in a tree crotch just as the Eastern Grays and even move into an attic or two. We have two adult SFSs rooming with us at the shelter now because they chose someone’s attic in which to live. They don’t hibernate and are active year round. So, if our southern winter temperatures dip too low for their thin fur coat, many flying squirrels will commune in one nest to keep warm. The average number is ten to twenty, but fifty Flyer aggregations have been recorded. They can also enter a state of torpor (state of physical inactivity) to withstand frigid temperatures. Like Eastern Gray Squirrels, Southern Flying Squirrels produce two litters of two to seven infants a year. Young are born without fur or any capabilities of their own. Fur grows in by seven days and their eyes don’t open until they are twenty five plus days. The parents leave their young sixty-five days after they are born, but they don’t become fully independent until about four months old. As adults, they spend a lot of time on the ground foraging at night, so they must be on the alert for the many predators that can do them in, and the list is long: owls, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, weasels and the common house cat, which tops the list as the most devastating predator of flying squirrels. They are very graceful in flight but extremely vulnerable on the ground. Their home range may be up to twenty-five square miles for females and double that for males. Flying Squirrels hear better than other squirrel species because, for their size, they possess a very large ear cavity. That feature helps them detect the movement of predators at night. They make a few different sounds, such as a loud and sharp “tseep,” which is considered an alarm or caution call to other flying squirrels. As for the chittering and “chucke” vocalizations, no one is really sure, but the snorting sound is associated with the act of challenging a lower ranking flying squirrel of the same sex. As most animals do, they too have a hierarchy. Ah oh, gotta go. Another Southern Flying Squirrel just checked in. She’s different in color, amber as opposed to steely gray and only 22 grams!

Hope you are having a wonderful “almost” Summer!
Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”