Minnesota Profile: Flying Squirrel (Genus Glaucomys)
Description: Two species of flying squirrels inhabit Minnesota: northern (Glaucomys sabrinus) and southern (G. volans). Both belong to the squirrel family, Sciuridae. Northern flying squirrels are about 11 inches long from nose to tip of tail. Southern flying squirrels are about 9 inches long. Both are brown to brownish gray with whitish belly fur. Tails are long, flat, and fluffy. Eyes of these nocturnal rodents are very large and ringed with black fur. Their most distinguishing feature is the patagium, furred skin that stretches from ankle to wrist.
Range and distribution: Northern flying squirrels range across North America, including central and northern Minnesota coniferous, deciduous, and mixed forests. Southern prefer deciduous forests. Both are abundant here, but their nocturnal habit keeps people from noticing them.
Airborne behavior: Flying squirrels don't really fly. Rather, they glide from a high perch to a lower one. When gliding, a flying squirrel holds its tail straight out and extends its limbs to stretch the patagium, like wings of a glider. It steers its body throughout its descent. Resembling Aladdin's magic carpet, the flattened squirrel can glide 100 feet or more. Gliding enables the squirrel to move quickly and elude predators.
Eating habit: Flying squirrels eat seeds, grains, fruits, berries, buds, nuts, fungi, insects, bird eggs, and even young birds and carrion. They're common nighttime visitors at bird feeders.
Nesting: In spring, flying squirrels nest in tree cavities such as woodpecker holes; sometimes they use bird houses, cabins, or attics. Litters of up to seven (typically two to four) pups are born blind and hairless. Southern flying squirrels frequently raise two litters each summer, while northern flying squirrels raise only one. To stay warm in winter, several often den together in tree cavities or bird houses.
Place in the ecosystem: Enemies include raptors, weasels, pine martens, fishers, and foxes. Hunters do not pursue this squirrel because of its small size, valueless fur, and nocturnal behavior. The DNR does not manage flying squirrel populations, but wildlife managers recommend leaving dead trees (snags) standing for flying squirrels and other cavity-dwelling animals.
Observing: If you live in a wooded place, watch bird feeders at night for flying squirrels and enjoy your furry friends.
DNR Wildlife private lands specialist