Jim Gilbert's Nature Notes: Watch for flying squirrels

  • Article by: JIM GILBERT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2013 - 9:07 AM

Flying squirrels don’t hibernate, although during extreme cold they do huddle together in a state of light, transitory hibernation known as torpor. Because they are strictly nocturnal, we rarely see these restless little squirrels. However, they are common woodland creatures even in our tree-covered Twin Cities neighborhoods and readily come to wildlife feeding stations for seeds and suet. They appear soon after sunset. A spotlight fixed on the feeder makes viewing easier and doesn’t keep them away.

Flying squirrels are about the same length as red squirrels but weigh less than half as much. Being nocturnal animals, they have large eyes. They also have loose folds of skin between their front and hind legs. A flying squirrel will climb to a high branch and hurl itself into space, extending its four legs outward in a fixed position so those flaps of skin can stretch like wings. Thus, flying squirrels don’t actually fly but glide, always losing altitude, guiding themselves with their flat, busy tail.

They can sail through the air for distances up to 150 feet, but most glides are merely 25 to 50 feet long. As it approaches a tree for landing, a flying squirrel will raise its tail to slow down. Upon grabbing the tree the squirrel will immediately scamper to the other side of the trunk so as to foil any hungry owls lurking.

Flying squirrels are probably the most abundant of the squirrels in forested parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are quite social. In winter as many as 30 of these squirrels have been found in one tree cavity.

Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.

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