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Flying squirrels are exotic yet common

"Gary the Glider" is a flying squirrel wintering at Wildwoods. (Photo: WIldwoods)1 / 2
Gary the Glider2 / 2

If you follow us on Facebook, you may know that Wildwoods has a northern flying squirrel spending the winter in our care. He had made his home in an attic where he wasn’t welcome. Many people don’t know flying squirrels exist in our region and think of them as somewhat exotic. They certainly look exotic with their flat tails and large, bulging black eyes, but there are two species that are native to North America: northern (Glaucomys sabrinus) and southern (Glaucomys volans). Both can be found in Minnesota. At 10-12 inches long, the northern flying squirrel is just a bit bigger than the southern variety and has gray fur at the base of its otherwise white belly.

Flying squirrels don’t actually fly like birds, but they glide from tree to tree using a flap of skin, called a patagium, stretched between their legs, using their flat tails as rudders and brakes. National Geographic has an amazing video of these guys in action at video.nationalgeographic.com/video/weirdest-flying-squirrel.

The reason we don’t often see them coasting effortlessly above our heads is that they are nocturnal and don’t spend much time out during the day if they can help it. They often take up residence in abandoned bird and squirrel nests and woodpecker holes. Flying squirrels have similar diets to other squirrels but southern flying squirrels will also prey on small birds, eggs and carrion.

Flying squirrels also provide a vital service to forest ecosystems by eating fungi. The squirrels distribute spores which form a symbiotic relationship with trees, providing the fungi with needed carbohydrates, and the trees with water and nutrients. (Learn more on that amazing relationship at radiolab.org/story/from-tree-to-shining-tree.)

Natural predators of flying squirrels include raptors like hawks and owls, and also foxes and weasels. Don’t worry though, they are excellent at avoiding capture! When being chased, a flying squirrel will quickly leap to another tree, gliding up to 150 feet, and as soon as it lands will scurry to the other side for protection.

Though flying squirrels are fairly common in our area there are two subspecies of northern flying squirrel listed as endangered due to habitat loss: the Carolina northern flying squirrel and the Virginia northern flying squirrel. The loss of habitat can be explained by human activities like logging and developments, but also because where northern and southern flying squirrel populations overlap, the more aggressive southern flying squirrels will outcompete for resources.

Northern flying squirrels give birth in the spring to litters of two to four. The young are born blind and deaf with fused toes. After 30 days their eyes open and after about 40 days they are ready to leave the nest, but not the care of mom. They’ll stick with their mother for another month while they get the hang of life outside the nest, but can you believe it? Just two months after these tiny, helpless babies are born they are ready to be on their own.

Gary the Glider, as I like to call him, will be staying with Wildwoods until the spring when food is more plentiful and he can stake out a new home territory. We never recommend evicting animals from their dens in the winter, since moving them somewhere else means they won’t be able to reach their food stashes and may end up in territory clashes with other animals. Gary is safe with us and food is abundant for him, but it’s stressful for him to be held captive in our facility, unable to fully exercise his instinctual habits or glide freely from tree to tree, or to socialize with other flying squirrels in his group.

We know it’s a big thing to ask, but if you have animals that have taken up residence in your home please think about living with them until the spring when their chances of survival will drastically increase.

Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit wildwoodsrehab.org, call (218) 491-3604 or write to P.O. Box 3161, Duluth, MN 55803.

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