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  • Flying squirrels raise their young in tree hollows; adults may share a hollow for winter shelter.

  • Additional night navigational equipment includes stiff, tactile hairs on their cheeks, chin, and ankles.

  • Flying squirrels need densely wooded habitat not only to be able to glide, but also for food and shelter.

  • Southern flying squirrels can glide up to 250 feet when launching from a 60-foot high branch.

  • Being active mostly at night reduces the number of predators flying squirrels have to worry about.

  • Large eyes help southern flying squirrels see well at night when they are typically most active.

Not many people get to see the southern flying squirrel because of its preference for being active at night and for staying high in the trees. The southern flying squirrel lives in the eastern United States, as well as in southeastern Canada and southward as far as Mexico and Honduras. Though found in both deciduous and mixed coniferous and deciduous woodlands, it prefers seed-producing hardwoods, especially beech, hickory, maple, oak, and poplar.

The name “southern flying squirrel” is a bit of an exaggeration. The species’ arboreal acrobatics are amazing—including glides of up to 250 feet, when launching from a height of about 60 feet, and making 90 degree turns mid-air—but they are actually gliding, not flying. A special flap of loose skin between the wrists and ankles stretches out to create a sort of parachute, and a wide, flat tail is used for guidance, enabling this squirrel to glide from high tree branches to lower ones with grace and ease. Large eyes enhance vision at night, which is especially helpful when navigating from tree to tree in the dark. Typically weighing about 2 ½ ounces, the southern flying squirrel is about 8-10 inches long, with the tail being about a third to a half of that length.

Threats to their safety and wellbeing

Natural threats to southern flying squirrels include predators such as hawks, owls, house cats, bobcats, weasels, raccoons, and climbing snakes. Though the southern flying squirrel has no special conservation status, it does need wooded habitat to survive, the kind of habitat that is disappearing at a rate of 5,000 acres per day.  As an unprotected species, they may also be hunted, although their size and nocturnal habits probably make them less appealing targets than some other animals.

How they spend their time

Like most animals, southern flying squirrels spend a good part of their time eating and avoiding being eaten. The latter is partly accomplished by being active primarily at night, and partly by quickly maneuvering to the far side of a tree after landing, in case a predator observes a gliding path or landing. Keen sense of sight, hearing, smell, and touch help, too, and their cheeks, chin, and ankles have vibrissae that help these animals navigate in the dark. As omnivores, southern flying squirrels have a rather varied diet that includes acorns, nuts, seeds, berries, fruits, leaf buds, bark, fungi, insects, bird eggs and young mice, and carrion. Acorns and hickory nuts are particular favorites, and the species is also helpful to the dispersal of seeds of these and other hardwood trees. They also facilitate tree growth and health by dispersing fungi spores that are associated with tree root systems.

Little is known about the southern flying squirrel’s courtship and mating. We do know that females have two periods of fertility each year. Births peak between February and May and then again between July and September, with some geographic variation. After a gestation period of 40 days, one to six young are born—most often there are two or three young. For an animal its size, southern flying squirrels spend an unusually long time nursing and caring for their young. Nursing continues for 65 days, and the young are not independent until 120 days. Perhaps this longer period of care gives the young more time to master their gliding and predator avoidance techniques. Young born in late summer have even more time with their mother, staying in her care for the winter.

Winter, in fact, is this species’ most gregarious time, with groups of 10-20 denning together in hollow trees, likely benefitting from the sharing of body heat. Southern flying squirrels also live in deserted woodpecker holes and sometimes seek shelter in attics or nest boxes. Inside these denning places they gather nesting materials such as dry leaves, shredded bark, moss, fur, and feathers for softness and warmth.

Hawks Close-up

With a hooked beak and talons perfect for catching and tearing meat, the hawk is an efficient hunter capable of great speed and precision.

 

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