Flying Squirrels—They’re Still Here!

by Kasha Helget

A couple of years ago, I shared a story about a wonderful program that Long Branch Nature Center runs each year about our local flying squirrel population. Among other things, we learned that these are southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans), 8-10 inches long (including their tails), and weighing on average a couple of ounces. Also, there are about as many flying squirrels as there are gray squirrels in our area. We don’t usually see the flyers because they’re nocturnal and generally hang out in the higher canopy of mature trees. And flying squirrels do not actually “fly.” They glide using skin flaps (patagium) that connect their arms and bodies. They are crazy cute with their huge eyes and tiny bodies—almost like big-eyed children in a Margaret Keane painting.

Photo of a flying squirrel
Southern flying squirrel, “set to soar,” by Christian Collins, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

I was totally intrigued with the flying squirrel nesting box that Long Branch staff attached to a tree along with a feeding platform for nuts and peanut butter. So, I convinced my handy husband, Michael, to build one, which he attached to a tree near our deck with a roof deck where we could place nuts. I ended the story with us waiting to see whether “if we built it, they would come.”

We had no luck that year. It was late February and too near the end of the winter season to encourage the little flyers to use the nest box or grab nuts from the roof deck.

Last season was a mixed bag. Shortly after Thanksgiving, we began setting out mixed nuts for the squirrels as soon as it was fully dark. We set up a night camera to check on visitors and learned a couple of things: a few flyers did visit, usually well into the night. But almost as often, raccoons stole the nuts before the squirrels got to them.

Photo of a racoon peering out from behind a tree trunk
Raccoon looking for nuts on the nest box deck. Photo by Michael Helget.

That’s when we realized that the flyers preferred peanuts to the harder shelled nuts. The very best discovery, however, was that they actually used the nest box for their young! There was traffic in and out of the entry holes, and peanut “hand-offs” to a parent flyer inside the box.

And then came the shocking incident. The advice we read online was to clean the nest box only in January or February—the only time the box would definitely be empty. So, Michael climbed a ladder to remove the box for cleaning last February, and two very surprised squirrels emerged, and an equally surprised Michael retreated, deciding that the box was probably clean enough. He did finally remove it early this April to make a small repair. It was not occupied but definitely needed cleaning of nesting materials and peanut shells. I guess the flyers didn’t read the online advice about vacating the box in February instead of April.

This winter has been another story. We again began setting out peanuts right after Thanksgiving, and it didn’t take long till our little flying squirrels started showing up and waiting for their nightly treat. It’s become very predictable that when it is fully dark there are up to four visitors either sitting on the roof deck waiting for their peanut delivery or running up and down the tree till we place the nuts out for them. The whole show is over within seconds. They are incredibly quick, usually grabbing a peanut and “flying” to the ground or running up the back of the tree with their treasure.

Video of flying squirrels grabbing their peanuts, by Michael Helget.

We plan to continue feeding our little guys peanuts well into the spring or as long as they’ll take them. It has become the best 10 second thrill for us each evening, and definitely worth pausing Netflix to enjoy.

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