The only two species of native flying squirrels found in North America are southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans) and northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus). They are both gray-brown, but at the base, the northern flying squirrel has belly fur, which is gray, and the belly fur is all white for the southern flying squirrel. Size is another way to distinguish between northern and southern flying squirrels. The southern species, about 8 to 10 inches in length, is smaller. Flying northern squirrels are 10 to 12 inches in length.
It may be more appropriate to call flying squirrels “gliding squirrels” because they cannot pick up flight as a bird or a bat can do. They have a special membrane between their front and back legs that enables them to glide through the air between trees. It launches itself from a high branch when a flying squirrel wants to travel to another tree without touching the ground and spread its limbs to expose the gliding membrane. It uses slight leg movements to steer, and upon reaching its destination, the tail acts as a brake. In one single glide, flying squirrels can cover more than 150 feet.
From Maine south to Florida and west from Minnesota south to Texas, the southern flying squirrel is found throughout the eastern United States. There is a much patchier distribution of the northern flying squirrel. Still, it is mainly found in the Northeast region of the United States, along the West Coast, and in Idaho and Montana.
In deciduous and coniferous forests and woodland, flying squirrels live. They typically live in woodpecker holes, nesting boxes, and abandoned nests of birds and other squirrels. Multiple squirrels will sometimes nest together to keep the winter warm.
Flying squirrels are great escape artists, thanks to their superb gliding abilities. Once a flying squirrel lands after a flight on a tree trunk, it scurries promptly to the other side of the trunk to prevent any predators that may have followed it. Owls, hawks, tree snakes, and climbing mammals, however, often manage to catch these tiny rodents and consume them.
Range in The United States
Flying squirrels are omnivores. Their diet consists of various foods, including seeds, nuts, fungi, fruits, and insects. As they supplement their diet with eggs, birds, and carrion, southern flying squirrels are considered one of the most carnivorous squirrels.
A flying northern squirrel mates once a year, but a flying southern squirrel mates twice a year. When young people are born, they depend on their mothers for two months to care for them. In captivity, flying squirrels can live for up to 10 years. In the wild, their lifespan is about half that.
Conservation and Status
In many parts of the country, flying squirrels are common rodents. Still, because they are nocturnal, few individuals ever see them. Two northern flying squirrel subspecies are federally listed as endangered due to the loss of habitat.
Humans have long sought to replicate the gliding abilities of the flying squirrel. A special suit that mimics the flying squirrel has been developed by base jumpers and skydivers. The suit works to slow down their descent and allows the air to maneuver through them.