A seldom seen and unusually mammal found in our forests is the flying squirrel, which is very nocturnal and the only squirrel in our area that is night active. As much as I’m out in the woods I’ve only seen them a few times.
Our local resident is the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans). It’s a little guy, with a body around 6 inches long, with a 4-inch tail. The fur is olive brown with a white belly. A folded layer of loose skin runs along each side of the body, from the front to hind leg. They have large eyes for night vision.
The above-mentioned loose skin is the key to a flying squirrel’s aerial ability. They don’t actually fly, but are excellent gliders. They leap from high vantages and spread all four legs, stretching the loose skin into a sail. Flights usually average 20 to 30 feet, but they can glide much further. As they approach a landing, they raise the tail to change the course of the glide upwards and extend the limbs to use the skin as a parachute. Upon landing, they quickly move to the other side of the tree to avoid predators (mainly owls and cats) that may have spotted them during flight.
The lifestyle of a flying squirrel goes something like this: Home is usually a hollow tree or stump where a nest is formed using soft material such as leaves. Here they rest during the day, then come out at dusk to feed on a wide range of foods, including nuts, acorns, seeds, berries, fruit, moths, June bugs, leaf buds, bark, eggs and young birds. They are among the most carnivorous of squirrels, taking advantage of their climbing abilities to raid bird nests. They are especially fond of hickory nuts and acorns; one sure sign of the presence of this species is piles of gnawed hickory nuts at the base of large hickory trees. The nuts will have chewed out elliptical holes with rough edges.
Flying squirrels are highly social animals, often hanging out in pairs. Males and females usually occupy separate nests in the summer, but in the winter often live together in groups. Two litters of young are produced each year in the spring and late summer. The gestation period is 40 days, and litters range from one to six young, though two or three are more common. The young are weaned at 65 days, an unusually long time for an animal this small, and are independent at 120 days. Maturity is usually attained at twelve months.
Flying squirrel’s preferred habitat is mature hardwood forests, especially those with oak, hickory, maple, beech and yellow poplar.
Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.