So common, but so rarely seen

Published 8:51 pm Tuesday, December 16, 2014

By Biff and Susan Andrews

So there we were, enjoying a second glass of wine in the deepening darkness of a June evening from our back deck, under huge, old-growth beech trees. It’s just a fond memory now, as we have been watching the leaves rain down these cold fall days.

It was too dark to see much, but all of a sudden a tiny squirrel landed on a large tree about 15 feet away. He did not climb. He did not descend. He “flew” to the tree. The nearest launch point was 40 feet away. It was a surprising and amazing sight. We were spellbound.

Email newsletter signup

Curious about these little creatures, we contacted our buddy, a biology professor, who basically said, ”If you have a hundred squirrels in your yard and a very heavy mast crop, you probably have flying squirrels.”

Well, we do have hundreds of our fat little furry friends in our yard, as our empty bird feeders will attest. But flying squirrels! We had no idea our feeders were being assaulted both day and night.

“Glaucomys Volans” — the Southern Flying Squirrel — lives in deciduous or mixed woods with abundant mast crops. Red oak, white oak, beech, hickory, maple — all provide food for squirrels.

They are tiny, about nine inches long, including the tail, and weigh only two to three ounces. They are gray/brown on top and darker on the flanks, cream colored on the belly. They have very large eyes, as they are nocturnal, and a furry membrane called a “patagium” connecting their front and rear feet, which flattens as they glide.

The maximum glide ever recorded is 200 feet. They glide at a 30- to 40-degree angle and usually glide less than 50 feet. Extremely agile, they can make 90-degree turns around obstacles.

They may den together in groups up to 20 in the winter to conserve heat. They usually have two litters of two to seven babies a year, of which about four per litter usually survive.

As agile as they are in flight, they are equally clumsy on the ground. Their main defense mechanism is to freeze motionless. Many, unfortunately, become owl or hawk food.

They are the oldest of the “modern” squirrels, about 30 million years, and they don’t seem in any danger of extinction. We in Eastern Virginia don’t have fox squirrels, red squirrels or Northern Flying Squirrels. We have gray squirrels and Southern Flying Squirrels in abundance.

Whether the “Glaucomys” part of the name comes from the large, saucer-like eyes or whether it has some connection to the disease, we cannot determine.

One final oddity: Perhaps because their range or territory may be quite large, flying squirrels have excellent homing abilities. If removed a kilometer from the nest while blindfolded, they will find their way home unerringly. I’m not sure we could do that either in the woods or on unfamiliar city streets.

It would be great to have night vision glasses and watch the action on the squirrel highway in our own back yard. It is probably constant all night long.

Virginia master naturalists Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at