What flies at night?
Well, bats do. And moths. And owls.
But what else flies--or in reality, glides--at night?
A flying squirrel!
Southern flying squirrel, eating peanut butter.
Where we live, there are lots of diurnal squirrels (meaning they're awake only during the day). We couldn't possibly go for a walk without spotting one (or ten) Eastern Gray Squirrels, even though we have our share of foxes, hawks, cats and dogs. But, as soon as the sun goes down, gray squirrels find their tree top nests and go to sleep.
About an hour after sundown, it's showtime: that's when all species of flying squirrels come out. As amazing as it seems, in densely populated Washington, D.C., our local naturalists calculate that there are as many flying squirrels here as there are gray squirrels.
The vast majority of our neighbors have never seen a flying squirrel, and most would be astonished to learn that they are so common here. Partly that's because these animals are active only at night; but they are also very small, and they prefer to spend nearly all their time up high in tall trees.
Our local species is the Southern Flying Squirrel, which ranges from the very southeastern edge of Canada, down the eastern half of the U.S. (as far west as central Texas), and south to the highlands of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
To attract flying squirrels, our town's nature center has several roosting boxes on trees about ten feet above the ground. Although flying squirrels are solitary for much of the year while the mothers raise their young, in the winter they like nothing better than to sleep their days away with as many as 25 of their buddies all snuggled in one roosting box! This man-made box has two holes, so the snoozers always have an escape route if by some chance a rat snake should pay them a visit.
Of course, the most amazing thing about flying squirrels is their ability to glide. Their bodies have a flap of skin known as a patagium (that's what a bat wing is called as well). These flaps allow flying squirrels to glide as far as 200 ft (up to 70 m). Their tails act as rudders and our naturalist told us that they can turn 90 degrees in mid-flight! Their tails also easily break away, allowing them to escape if a predator grabs them only by the tail.
When they first land on a tree, they quickly scurry to the other side in case an owl has been following them, which explains the inordinate number of photos I took of these trees...minus the squirrels.
Flying squirrels will "eat almost anything" according to the naturalist our family met, and that includes nuts and seeds, insects, fruit, fungi, bird eggs, tree sap, and meat if they are desperate. These squirrels were enjoying nuts and peanut butter.
Other flying squirrels around the world.
The Northern Flying Squirrel prefers the most northern part of the U.S. and Canada. Many species of true flying squirrels (which are rodents) can be found in Asia, and a lone species, the Siberian Flying Squirrel, can be found from Finland to Japan.
There are other animals around the world that are gliders resembling flying squirrels. In Australia, you can find the sugar baby, which is not a rodent but rather a marsupial (meaning the mamas have pouches to care for their young just like kangaroos and koalas). Sugar babies are sometimes cared for as pets, but their nocturnal habits aren't for everyone, which is how this particular Australian native ended up as a rescue animal at a nature center in Virginia.
So, if you happen to live in a region with flying squirrels, take a look up into a stand of tall trees one night--you just might see these little acrobats gliding through the air.
Here's a link for instructions for building a flying squirrel (winter) roosting box; as I mentioned, you might have over 20 flying squirrels snoozing the day away all winter in such a box. (Note that the recommended dimensions are different for southern vs. northern flying squirrels.)