Flying Squirrels

Scooter the Flying Squirrel

Scooter the Flying Squirrel

Steve Patterson shared his love of Flying Squirrels with the Guelph Young Naturalist group in 2012.  This photo shows Scooter the Flying Squirrel who is about to glide across the room to Steve.

Northern Flying Squirrel Tracks

Flying Squirrel Tracks (Luther Marsh. January 2015)

Flying Squirrel Tracks (Luther Marsh. January 2015)

These tracks look similar to a red squirrel but the overall appearance is “boxy” (less splayed).  Flying squirrel feet are furrier than red squirrel feet which contributes to a “neater” outline, similar to a cottontail rabbit.  This was the first time that I have noticed flying squirrel tracks at Luther Marsh.  I am definitely interested in seeing more.

Flying Squirrel Track (Algonquin Park, February 2015)

Northern Flying Squirrel Track (Algonquin Park, February 2015)

Compare the top and bottom photos.  The top photo is a Northern Flying Squirrel track in deep, fluffy snow.  The bottom photo is a Northern Flying Squirrel track in deep snow with a hard crust.  The wind picked up between these two days.

Flying Squirrel Track (Algonquin Park, February 2015)

Flying Squirrel Track (Algonquin Park, February 2015)

While observing Northern Flying squirrel tracks in deep snow, I noticed that the overall track pattern (while the squirrel is bounding) looks like the round print of a cross country ski pole with two prongs.  The groups of tracks look “boxy” in comparison to red squirrels.  Northern Flying squirrels normally bound but will occasionally hop in contrast to the very hoppy Southern Flying Squirrels.  A tracker friend (Ceil) shared a good tip for identifying the difference between Southern and Northern Flying squirrel tracks: “If the rears are to the South (rears registering behind the fronts in a hopping pattern) then the squirrel is most likely a Southern Flying Squirrel.  If the rears are to the North (rears registering in front of the front feet in a bounding pattern) then the squirrel is most likely a Northern Flying Squirrel.”  The use of North and South is this example are related to the placement of rears being in front or behind the front feet.

Northern Flying Squirrel Trail (Algonquin Park, February 2015)

Northern Flying Squirrel Trail (Algonquin Park, February 2015)

When determining whether a trail belongs to a red squirrel or a Northern Flying squirrel, look for a “flap drag” between the tracks in deep snow.  The flaps of skin used for gliding may also leave a curved line in the snow at the rear edge of a bound, giving the overall track a “round” appearance.  The trail width for a Northern Flying Squirrel is similar to a red squirrel (7.6-10.2 cm or 3 – 4 inches).  The trail width for a Southern Flying Squirrel is similar to a chipmunk (3.8 – 7.3 cm or 1/2 – slightly under 3 inches).  Northern Flying squirrels tend to stay at higher elevations in old-growth forests whereas the Southern Flying Squirrels tend to live in lowlands and valleys where there are lots of Hickory and Oak trees.

Flying Squirrel Scat

Flying Squirrel Scat (Allan Park, November 2014)

Flying Squirrel Scat (Allan Park, November 2014

This pellet-shaped scat was found in a flying squirrel latrine site.  A large basswood tree had fallen over.  This tree seemed to be a favoured accomodation site for a variety of animals.  We noticed pileated woodpecker holes in the bark.  There were piles of raccoon scat on a horizontal limb.  Two nesting/latrine sites for flying squirrels were visible – one on the fallen limb and the other near the base of the basswood tree.  I learned that flying squirrel scat accumulates in areas where the squirrels nest and cache food.  The scat often flows out of tree cavities, low to the ground.

Flying Squirrel Latrine Site (Allan Park, November 2014)

Flying Squirrel Latrine Site at base of tree (Allan Park, November 2014)

Flying Squirrel Latrine Site in a hollow basswood limb (Allan Park, 2014)

Flying Squirrel Latrine Site in a hollow basswood limb (Allan Park, 2014)

The scat is darker in the second photo, indicating fresher scat – this location might still be in use.

Flying Squirrel Chews

Flying Squirrel Chew on a Hickory Nut

Flying Squirrel Chew on a Hickory Nut

I learned that the above chew mark is typical of Flying Squirrels.  They make a circular hole near the top of the shell where they can access the delicious nut inside.  I also learned that Flying Squirrels notch the bottom of hickory nuts with their teeth when they carry them back to their tree cavity – gliding across the forest with a nut sticking out of their mouth (comparable to a human holding a  football with their teeth).

I have fond memories of camping on Pog Lake with family and family friends while growing up. This particular camp-site backed onto a wetland and there seemed to be a great diversity of wildlife in this section of the park. I remember watching two red squirrels during the day. One was an industrious red squirrel and the other one was an opportunistic, lazy red squirrel. The industrious one tirelessly gathered cones, nipping branches to get the cones to fall and then collecting them from the forest floor. The other, “lazy” squirrel would wait until the hard-working squirrel was up in the tree nipping branches to seize an opportunity to collect the cones that the other one had nipped off. It was amusing to watch the hard-working squirrel return from his efforts and puzzle over why many of his cones had disappeared. I remember hearing a lot of frustrated churring sounds coming from the industrious squirrel. When these two characters finally went to sleep around dusk, we saw another creature appear, gliding across the dark camp-site to land on the same tree that the red squirrels had shared during the daylight hours. It was a flying squirrel! We heard it scuttle around to the back-side of the tree (they do this to avoid owls that might be swooping in after them) and we admired how the two species of squirrels shared the same niche but at different times of the day to avoid competition. Nature is marvelous.

2 thoughts on “Flying Squirrels

  1. Hello, I’ve been reading this over and thinking more about how to tell a Red Squirrel vs. Gray Squirrel vs. Northern Flying Squirrel vs. Southern Flying Squirrel. I’m trying to create a bit of a “Identification Key” or Flowchart. Would like feedback on it!!!

    First off, a southern Flying Squirrel’s trail width range is 1 and 1/2” to 2 and 7/8″. This would make it easy to tell as all the other three squirrel have trail width of 3 ” or larger. In fact, it is closer to a chipmunk’s trail width, which is 2 and 1/8″ to 3 and 1/8 ”

    Beyond that, we need to determine Red vs. Gray vs. Northern Flying… I think? So a good clue would be if the front are ahead of the rears, since Northern Flying Squirrels usually have this pattern, whereas Reds and Grays generally have front feet registering behind rear feet.

    Then, we’re still left distinguishing Red and Grays. Sometimes habitat can help you rule one of these out, but in other places, both live nearby. I would like to study these two sets of tracks more to determine the key differences, but here’s a start:
    -if you can see the heel pads of a gray squirrel, (three palm pads, 2 heel pads) then you know it’s not a red squirrel. This doesn’t help much in deep snow though.
    -if a trail width is 4 and 1/4″ or above, we know it’s a Gray Squirrel
    -that still leave a “gray area” where a track with a trail width of 3″ to 4 and 1/4″ could be a Red Squirrel, Gray Squirrel, or a northern Flying Squirrel
    -Reds have a pattern of stepping one front foot in front of the other which might give it away.
    -Otherwise, Rezendes (1999) recommends taking up to ten trail width and heel track length measurements before taken a guess….

    Other Questions: Okay, how do we tell a chipmunk from a southern Flying Squirrel?

    Any other missing identification ideas here?

  2. Alex, great start here! I think if you added distance between bounds to the trail width you will find it easier to distinguish among these rodents.

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