“Night Gliders”

a_blog_sfs_x“It’s a bird! No . . it’s a bat!” It could very well be that both guesses are wrong. The diminutive night flyer, gliding from tree to tree on folds of outstretched skin is the most common mammal never seen by humans in North Carolina, so it is easily misidentified. The Southern Flying Squirrel is a small rodent with big saucer like eyes that occupies habitat similar to his larger cousins, the gray squirrel and the fox squirrel, however this itty-bitty squirrel is nocturnal, becoming active and feeding only at night while foraging on the ground. It weighs no more than 2 to 3 oz. and measures from 8 1/2 in. to 9 7/8 in., including a 3 to 4-inch tail. The Southern Flying Squirrel is the smallest of North Carolina’s 5 tree squirrel species. Its fur is a ravishing reddish brown or gray, although its belly is colored a creamy white. The most distinctive feature it sports is the cape of loose skin that stretches from its wrists to its ankles and forms a membrane, called the patagium, with which it is capable of gliding. The membrane is bordered in black. When the squirrel stretches its legs to their fullest extent, the membrane opens and supports the animal on glides of considerable distance. Although it is called a “flying” squirrel, it actually jumps and parachutes rather than flies! It’s amazing to catch a visual of them in “flight.” a_blog_squirrelflyingeThe gliding membrane billows up, and by varying the tension on the patagium and using its tail as a rudder (like the tail on a kite), the SFS can direct its glide around branches and other obstacles with remarkable agility, although it cannot gain altitude during a glide. However, it can make a sudden 90-degree angle turn in the direction of its glide. That fluffy little “multi-purpose” tail is also used for communication and thermal regulation. Although the distance they glide is usually short, the longest flight on record was measured at around 200 feet. The flying squirrel lands hind feet first, head up and scampers to the side of the tree to avoid detection. The Southern Flying Squirrel is one of two flying squirrels found in North America— the other one is the Northern Flying Squirrel. While both are found in North Carolina, the Northern FS is rare and found only at higher elevations in the western part of our state. Although a fairly quiet animal, flying squirrels can produce birdlike chirping sounds, but some of their vocalizations are not audible to the human ear. Preferred habitats for Southern Flying Squirrels include hardwood and mixed pine-hardwood forests. They require older trees with cavities that provide 11/2 to 2 in. in diameter entrances for roosting and nesting, and in winter these adorable squirrels readily gather in surprisingly large numbers. Tree cavities have been found with as many as 50 roosting squirrels. Because of their need for tree cavity habitats, they are a natural competitor for woodpeckers’ homes, and even though they are quite cute, they’ve been known to bully an endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker from its nesting cavity and take over the residence. Bluebird boxes are also quite attractive to flying squirrels. Wildlife rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport get involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of this delightful, tiny squirrel when the little one chooses a cavity precariously close to a residence or possibly, even manages to enter a house. It’s not uncommon for Southern Flying Squirrels to find a cavity somewhere on a residential structure and make their way into an attic or a wall to find a perfect and safe dwelling to nest and raise babies, which some folks object to. Sometimes a tree is cut down before realizing it is home to nesting or roosting flyers. Tree cutters bring the homeless little gliders to the shelter to ensure they are cared for and raised properly for eventual release back into the wild, giving them that second chance we at the shelter are known for. When they are admitted, usually due to displacement rather than injury, we attempt to replicate their omnivorous natural diet as best we can. If very young, shelter staff will provide syringe formula until they are ready for solid foods such as meal worms, fruits, berries, flower blossoms, vegetables, seeds and nuts.a_blog_flying-squirrel-009e Nesting and breeding usually occurs twice a year; January-February and June-July. A typical nest will be lined with finely chewed bark, especially cedar bark in the east and grasses. Lichen, moss and even feathers will provide a soft bed. More than one nest is constructed as a necessary Plan B in the wild, because Mom will need to move her infants if the nest is disturbed by natural elements such as damaging weather or predator presence such as owls, hawks, snakes, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, weasels, foxes and the common house or feral cat (which is the most prevalent and lethal danger posed to them). The average litter produces one to three young that weigh in at less than a quarter ounce each. The youngsters will open their eyes at four weeks and stay with Mom until she births her next litter. Although SFS are mammals and babies will nurse for about a month, they will be gliding and eating on their own by eight weeks. Unfortunately, Mom is on her own during this time, as males do not assist with the rearing of babies. It will take about a year for the youngin’s to mature before reproducing. Life expectancy for these cute little rodents is up to 13 years in captivity, but not more than 4 or 5 years in the wild.a_blog_sfs_ Flying squirrels are the oldest living line of “modern” squirrels, and fossil records date back over 30 million years. SFS are a nongame species and although not listed as endangered, we should still be mindful that their presence gives humans a better quality of life. Those cutie-patooties glide through the night feeding on a variety of insects and big ‘ole bugs that would surely be annoying to us during the day! So, if you find Southern Flying Squirrels have moved into your home or they are now homeless due to a tree ‘fell,’ please contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center or wildlife control officer for assistance, not just because they are cute, but because we need to protect and relocate our environmental partners!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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”