by Kasha Helget
On a recent evening, adults and families gathered for a flying squirrel program at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington. Naturalist Rachael Tolman shared some interesting facts about these little charmers and then led us outside to witness them in action.
There was a palpable sense of excitement when a group of children and “big kids” arrived at Long Branch on a recent Saturday evening for the local southern flying squirrels program. Naturalist Rachel Tolman stirred even more interest when she said that this was her favorite program, and it quickly became apparent why: they’re adorable! She began by sharing some interesting facts:
- There are two types of flying squirrels in this country—our local southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans), which are 8-10 inches long (including their tails) and weigh on average a couple of ounces, and their sister northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus), which live further . . . north, are a total of 10-12 inches and weigh an average of 3 ½ ounces. All flying squirrels are nocturnal which is why we rarely see them. However, Rachael stated that they are as common as our larger diurnal (daytime) gray squirrels!
- Flying squirrels do not actually “fly” but rather glide using skin flaps that connect their arms and bodies, called a patagium. They can glide 100 yards, although they usually only “fly” from tree to tree. As gliders, they always glide downward, and generally, for every two feet high they are, they can get about one foot of gliding distance. Once they land on a tree, they usually rapidly scurry to the opposite side to avoid becoming lunch for a pursuing predator, such as an owl.
- A way to determine if flying squirrels are in the area is if nut shells left behind have a single circular cut to remove the nutmeats. However, their diet is varied—insects in the warmer months, and other small animals, eggs, fruits, seeds, and nuts at other times of the year. They are readily attracted to bird feeders and other feeding stations during winter.
- Flying squirrels prefer tree cavities for nesting, and are more solitary in the summer. But in the winter, they often nest together for warmth.
After showing us flying squirrel puppets, Rachael brought out the real thing: a live southern flying squirrel that was too cute for words. It has very large eyes to better see in the dark, and was surprisingly docile.
We all got to pet it as it sat patiently on Rachael’s hand.
At that point, Rachael took us outside to visit the center’s own flying squirrel feeding station and winter nest box in front of the nature center. She recommends that, if people feed flying squirrels (which can be very comfortable with people close by), they should set out food about a 1/2 hour after dusk on a spot at least 10 feet above the ground. The early nighttime is when they become most active. If they’re fed regularly, they will be steady visitors. Rachael then slathered some peanut butter right on the bark of an oak tree, and placed some nuts on the roof of a nest box nearby. It took about 30 seconds for the first flying squirrels to pop onto the tree and begin licking the peanut butter and working on the nuts. Others followed shortly thereafter. It wasn’t long before we saw one in full flight between trees, which was really magical! They also scurried in and out of a hole in the nest box, likely to eat in private.
There is a high mortality rate among young squirrels, which are born in late winter and then again in the summer. Some of it is because of predators (owls, snakes, foxes, raccoons, and outdoor cats), but flying squirrels may also eat another’s young. Young squirrels also need to get the hang of gliding and can often crash in the learning phase. Those that make it to adulthood can live 3-6 years in the wild, or over double that time in captivity.
Rachael provided a handout on to build a flying squirrel nest box, and there are many online sites with instructions, too. She recommends a circular opening between 1 ¼ and 1 ½ inches in diameter and surrounded by metal to keep gray squirrels from chewing the hole larger. In addition, she suggested adding a second (escape) hole in case a snake or other predator gets into the box.
A highly recommended blog is Alonso Abugattas’s Capital Naturalist. His piece about southern flying squirrels is a delightful and informative read.
Kids and adults are welcome to sign up for flying squirrel programs, which are repeated a few times each winter. There is one more at Long Branch on Feb. 18. More information is in The Snag, the Guide to Arlington County’s Nature and History Programs.
Finally, I was SO captivated by Rachael’s presentation and Long Branch’s feeding station and nest box, that I wanted one of my own. My handy husband, Michael, put one together in a couple of days with a rooftop feeding station, a pair of entrance/exit holes, and an easy open side door for cleanups after the winter roosting is completed. We just set it up and are waiting for our first furry visitors.