Quite often when I’m giving talks about forests or wildlife, I’ll mention flying squirrels. They’re one of my favourite mammals, but as they are nocturnal and we don’t tend to look for wildlife at night, they are easily missed. Still, it surprises me how few people have seen one, or even know that they are relatively common on Prince Edward Island.
The three native rodent species that are often referred to as “squirrels” are actually two squirrels and a chipmunk. The eastern chipmunk does look like a small squirrel, though the black and white striping along its sides is quite distinct, and it resides underground in the winter. It doesn’t actually hibernate, it just becomes much less active. The red squirrel, on the other hand, is very common, visiting feeders throughout the year, scolding us in the woods, and leaving feeding signs all over the place. It spends almost all its time above ground.
My first encounter with a flying squirrel was love at first sight. They have beautiful tan-coloured fur, with large eyes to help them see better at night. They are relatively timid, and can be viewed quite closely.
Northern flying squirrels do not actually fly, despite the name. The extra skin on each side of its body and a wide, flat tail allows it to glide down to a food source. They have to jump and climb to get back up the tree if they want to take “flight” again. Think of them as rodent kites – when they stretch out their front and rear paws and tail, they create a lot of surface that keeps them afloat in the air.
I had thought that flying squirrels would be found in wild spaces, as they nest and den in cavities in dead and dying trees. Several times I’ve tapped on a dead tree with woodpecker nesting cavities and had a flying squirrel poke its head out. Yet I have also seen many flying squirrels at bird feeders in the evening, coming in from nearby trees. It is quite something to watch one glide down to a feeder and eat sunflower seeds or — even better — peanut butter.
Sometimes you can hear them at night if your feeders are close to a window. The squirrels leap to the feeder, which bangs against the window. I regularly see them at my home in Tea Hill, but I also found one in the Robert L. Cotton Park in Stratford. That one was actually out during the day.
Flying squirrels live among coniferous trees, often taking over abandoned woodpecker cavities as well as old red squirrel or blue jay nests. The interior nests are preferred for winter living and bearing young, while the exterior nests are favoured in the summer. Like the red squirrel, flying squirrels do not hibernate and are active all year.
As they do with much of our smaller wildlife, cats extract a large toll on the flying squirrel population. It is not uncommon to see a tail (much flatter than that of a red squirrel) on the ground near your house if you have cats that go outside, which is another good reason to keep cats indoors.
For more on flying squirrels, check out the new publication Mammals of Prince Edward Island and Adjacent Marine Waters by Rosemary Curley et al.
The always popular Macphail Woods Owl Prowls take place April 15, 17, 19 and 25 in the Macphail Woods Nature Centre in Orwell. Check out macphailwoods.org for more information.