In Search of the Northern Flying Squirrel

All animals can be inquisitive creatures, especially squirrels.  They have the ability to go where they want, when they want.   —Tim Gause


A rarely seen visitor, and one I had yet to see in these woods, was the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus).  The reason for this little animal slipping past my radar is that it requires staying up the night watching and waiting, but mostly waiting.  You see, the northern flying squirrel, though active year-round, is nocturnal, a night flyer, or more correctly, a night glider.  Therefore, while it is having a grand time gliding through the treetops, running across the rooftop, or scratching the ground for truffles, I am sound asleep.    

Comparison photos of a Douglas squirrel (left) and a northern flying squirrel (right).

Getting around is easy when you’re a flying squirrel.  In order to glide up to 160 feet, the squirrel must get airborne.  To do this, it uses its hind legs to launch from the tree canopy or from trunk to trunk.  With arms and legs outstretched, the loose skin membrane, which connects from the wrists to the ankles, opens and catches an air pocket.  The tail, flat and broad, acts like a rudder that helps control the glide.  

During the day, the northern flying squirrel sleeps snug inside tree snags or old woodpecker holes.  (Tree snags, dead or alive, provide valuable food and shelter for many species.)  In cold weather, more than one flying squirrel may occupy a tree cavity.  In summer, they make their nests in the tree canopy, often using deserted crows nests or vacant nests of other squirrel species.  At night, the flying squirrel forages on insects, fruits, nuts, seeds, lichens, and above all, truffles—the fruiting part of a fungi, its favorite food.  Because of its night activity and food choices, it does not compete with the Douglas squirrel that also shares the same habitat.    

The northern flying squirrel has a lifespan of four years.  It makes its home in old-growth forests and mixed woods, and is the main food source of the (endangered) spotted owl, which can consume some 250 squirrels per year.  The relationship of forest, fungi, squirrel, and owl is critical, because when old growth forest is cut and cleared, the fungi dies that feeds the flying squirrel that feeds the spotted owl.    

Finding a flying squirrel in the dark was not going to be easy.  While night vision binoculars would work wonders, I don’t own a pair.  Instead, I relied on a more primitive method—a flashlight.  Like deer in the headlights, animal eyes glow when caught in a beam of light.  I have found bats, raccoon, skunk, rabbit, deer, and coyote this way.  It’s even possible to light up the eyes of some spider species, which in my case, are easier to find than the northern flying squirrel. 

All hope of seeing one eventually faded until about a month ago, when conversation with a store clerk got me thinking again.  As the two five-pound bags of unsalted peanuts made their way down the conveyor belt and across the scanner, the clerk said, “For the squirrels, right?”  “Oh yes.  We have to keep them well fed, or there’s no living with them,” I said, referring to the Douglas squirrels that are spoiled rotten.

The man behind me chuckled, and the clerk smiled and said, “It’s the same for us.  Our bird feeders are overrun with squirrels during the day and flying squirrels at night.”

“Flying squirrels?” I asked.  “Yeah, they come at night for the sunflower seeds,” she said.  Now I was curious.  “Where do you live?” I asked.  Her answer surprised me.  It wasn’t the foothills as I expected, but rather the newly incorporated City of Damascus—a semi rural community with surrounding farmland and forest. 

OK, I admit it; I was feeling a bit of squirrel envy.  It was like the bear sightings that always happen somewhere else, now it was happening with flying squirrels.  As the rest of the items were scanned and bagged, I thought of asking if I could camp out in her yard, when she said, “I can’t believe you live in the mountains, and have never seen them.”  “Yeah,” I said, “I can’t believe it either.”

Several weeks later, around 8:00 p.m., I had just come in from feeding the raccoons.  Usually, I turn off the porch light, but this time I forgot.  Outside, it was a few degrees below freezing, and light snow was falling adding to the six inches that had already fallen.  At the sink, filling the teakettle, I glanced out the window.  There, on the ground, lighted by snow and the faded beam of the porch light, was a flying squirrel cracking sunflower seeds.

The flying squirrel darts up a tree when it hears the shutter release of my camera. They are as fast as mice!  I was surprised I got this shot.

Although I had never seen one, I recognized it immediately.  A small squirrel (9 3/4 to 15 inches long) with big buggy eyes, this one looked to be about 10 inches long from nose to tail.  Its fur was rusty-brown, its belly cream-colored, enhanced by the dark chocolate stripe along its sides.  Even the flight membrane was visible.  The tail was dark brown above, tan below, and noticeably flat.

I called for Chris, who was relaxing on the couch in the other room.   “Hurry!  Come look!  A flying squirrel!”  I said as loud as I dared so as not to frighten the animal.  We watched for several minutes, then Chris went back to the couch, and I went for the camera.

With no possible way to get a clean photograph through the window, I had to step outside and risk the animal leaving.  Somehow, I got through the sliding door and screened door in a single flowing motion.  It was strange.  What was even more surprising, however, was that the flying squirrel didn’t leave.  Only when I closed the screened door behind me did it run with lightening speed up a tree.  I was impressed how fast this animal is, so much faster than the Douglas squirrel. 

It didn’t take long for the flying squirrel to accept me, and the sound of the shutter release. This photo clearly shows the animal’s beautiful earth tone coloring, and flat tail.

To my surprise, the squirrel came back, and resumed feeding.  I moved in as close as I dared until I was a few feet away.  Unfortunately, the sound of the shutter release sent the animal up the tree again, but like before, it came back, and this time it stayed.  What luck!  My search for the northern flying squirrel was over.


Copyright 2012.  All rights reserved.


🌿For more information about northern flying squirrels, and to see them in action, check out this short documentary:

🌿Are you a Rocky and Bullwinkle fan?  Then you might enjoy the animated “Opening Theme”

8 thoughts on “In Search of the Northern Flying Squirrel

  1. I had not read this gem earlier. So glad I found it. Squirrel envy indeed, now I have it, big time. Nicely writen, too. I feel like I was right there.

    1. Thank you, Maril! Glad you enjoyed the story and were able to connect with the experience. Meeting the flying squirrel was one of those special moments for sure, and one I’ll never forget. 😊

  2. I’m so glad I found your blogs! What a great article- I’m sharing it on Twitter and on our Blue Mountain Bed and Breakfast Facebook page. During the winter months we have two flying squirrels that hang out near our bed and breakfast. You have to be up pretty late to see them at our feeders since they are nocturnal.

    1. Thank you for following, and for sharing my post. I love flying squirrels, and was thrilled to see my first one. Had it not been for the snow, and my having stayed up until the wee hours, I would have missed him.

  3. Love this story, Julie. I’m always amazed at how unexpected some of our sightings of wild things can be – like the time I saw a coyote eating crab apples in my front yard on a beautiful sunny Thanksgiving morning.

    1. Thanks, Otto! I only saw it the one time, and was surprised how tame it was. They make their home in the forest, but being nocturnal, encounters with them are rare.

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