If you ask someone to identify the most common squirrel species in Ohio, most people would probably tell you it is the familiar gray squirrel – commonly seen in towns and suburbs, in parks and anywhere else there are trees around.
While gray squirrels are certainly common, they aren’t the most common squirrel species in Ohio. That distinction belongs to the secretive Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys Volans), at least according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
The Southern Flying Squirrel is found throughout the eastern United States, from Florida north to Quebec, and from central Texas eastwards. Its home is in mixed deciduous woods, although as a youngster I encountered them in southern pine forests.
They are much smaller than their gray and fox squirrel cousins, and their fur is an olive-brown on top with white underneath. They breed twice a year, in the spring and fall, with two to six young per litter.
Flying squirrels came to my attention recently when a friend of mine was evicting what she thought to be starlings out of an old birdhouse, and was surprised when a flying squirrel stuck its head out of the hole. She said it looked to see what was going on, and then sprang away. She does not like European Starlings, but she was totally cool with the flying squirrel living in the box, although she hoped that she did not frighten it into moving away.
My own experiences with flying squirrels usually involved disturbing a den of them, then watching them pop out of a hollow tree, scattering to neighboring trees, then quickly disappearing. They spring from tree to tree, usually zip around to the other side of the trunk, scamper up the tree, and repeat the process until they get to where they are going.
There are a probably a few things you don’t know about the flying squirrel.
One. They are pretty much everywhere, probably all around you, but they are largely nocturnal (unless disturbed) and very secretive. You will rarely ever know that they are around.
Two. Unlike the aviator helmet-wearing Rocket J. “Rocky” Squirrel, from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, real flying squirrels do not actually fly, rather they glide using flaps of loose skin called “gliding membranes” that stretch from their wrists to their ankles. When they stretch out their arms and legs, this membrane gives them added lift. The closest human analogy to this is the wingsuit worn by adventure seeking skydivers. Since they don’t actually fly, flying squirrels have to quickly triangulate the distance from tree to tree before springing off.
Three. Although flying squirrels are quick and graceful in the air, they are clumsy on the ground and vulnerable to predators, which include snakes, birds of prey, raccoons and other animals. In areas close to humans, domestic house cats can be especially dangerous.
Four. Flying squirrels are very social animals and dens of 24 or more are not unheard of, especially in the winter. Congregating like this allows them conserve energy by sharing warmth.
Five (and this one is really cool). Relic populations of Northern Flying Squirrels still live in isolated clusters in the highest elevations in West Virginia. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the subspecies was separated from the main species when the ice sheets receded about 10,000 years ago. The West Virginia subspecies of the Northern Flying Squirrel was in danger of extinction as recently as the 1980s, but populations have recovered and stabilized since then.
Six. Flying squirrels will eat pretty much anything. Although they will typically eat nuts and acorns, other things are on their menu as well: seeds, fruit, small animals and birds, carrion, and even mushrooms and other fungi.
So even though you may rarely see them, if you live around the woods chances are that you have more than a few flying squirrels as neighbors.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org