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Creature Feature: Ohio’s flying squirrels

By Kelly Fisher, staff writer

Believe it or not, flying squirrels are the most common squirrels in Ohio.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the southern flying squirrel is found throughout the eastern U.S. — from Maine to Florida to Texas – while the northern flying squirrel “has a much patchier distribution,” but is located mostly in the northeast, along the west coast and parts of Idaho and Montana.

Graphic by Kelly Fisher
Graphic by Kelly Fisher

Sam Romeo of AmeriCorps said that most people have probably seen the nocturnal rodents before, but they are easy to mistake for a bird or a bat in the dark.

“I had a bird feeder behind my house, one of the higher places in Athens, (and) I found out that (the flying squirrels) like to hang out in those places,” he said. “If you think about it, they can’t really walk, so they like to start high and glide down. So, I actually found one at my feeder (one) night, and you can find their teeth marks in it.”

He added that he learned that the creatures don’t typically fly around at night, but hang out in trees, and that “gliding” is more of an appropriate term than “flying,” because they tend to climb up to high heights and glide down rather than take flight.

Romeo and a few other AmeriCorps members were lucky enough to see flying squirrels during daylight back in January when accompanying Dr. Don Althoff, associate biology professor at the University of Rio Grande, on a venture through Hocking Hills to check nest boxes, manmade boxes — similar to birdhouses — for the squirrels to study their populations.

Photo provided by Don Althoff. Althoff holds a flying squirrel, found in Hocking Hills, OH.
Photo provided by Sam Romeo. Althoff holds a flying squirrel, found in Hocking Hills, OH.

Althoff said that sometimes other types of squirrels, such as gray squirrels or fox squirrels, will try to use the nest boxes and end up enlarging the hole to get into the box, and when this happens, the flying squirrel won’t use it anymore. Therefore, he had to ensure that the boxes were built in such a way that the other animals wouldn’t squeeze into it. “What I’ve learned is, about every time I think I’ve seen it all, I haven’t seen it all.”

Romeo said that the group of researchers and AmeriCorps members who went to check the nest boxes found seven or eight squirrels in one box (the highest number Althoff has ever found in one box was 12).

“In the winter, they become isolated and kind of nest all together, because safety in numbers, and they like to stay cozy and warm and stuff,” Romeo said. Althoff said that wintertime is the best time to observe them because they share the boxes and get along well because they aren’t breeding yet. He added that in summer, males are more likely to fly around than females due to breeding opportunities, while females typically remain in nest cavities to care for any babies that they have.

Romeo recalled pulling the nest boxes down from the trees and gently putting the squirrels in a tube to separate them and using mesh bags to weigh them. He and the research team recorded weight, sexual reproduction and other common population survey statistics. Romeo said that the flying squirrels they observed were closer in size to chipmunks than common squirrels.

Romeo brought up the point that if clear cutting or selective cutting were an issue in the region, that the nest boxes would provide the flying squirrels with another place to go, and that would be another reason that they would all be huddled in the same place. Althoff said that he has nest boxes set up at 12 sites, and clear cutting is not an issue at any of them.

Clear cutting is a forestry technique in which most or all of the trees in an area are cut down, while selective cutting is the technique used in which only older, mature trees are cut down. And since flying squirrels tend to prefer to settle in nest cavities in deciduous or coniferous trees that have already been used by owls, other squirrels or woodpeckers, either method of cutting down trees puts them in a funk when it comes to finding a new nest.

Since flying squirrels depend on trees and are not coordinated on the ground, deforestation would be a huge concern to their population, and they would be forced to relocate. Althoff also pointed out the difference in “hard math,” (nuts, acorns, etc.) and “soft math,” (blackberries, raspberries, etc.) when it comes to their food; the flying squirrels tend to depend on hard math, so if the trees being cut were the ones that produced that, then that would also be a reason for them to find a new home.

“Compared to other possible monitoring techniques, such as trapping and telemetry, which typically are more labor-intensive and expensive, we conclude monitoring southern flying squirrel populations with nest boxes shows economical and statistical efficiency, and is therefore feasible,” according to a past study that Althoff conducted, published in the Ohio Journal of Science in April, 2001. Althoff said he has not submitted any research for publication recently.

Trapping is a system in which the animal literally falls into a trap so that the observer may study them, but they could be in a trap for long periods of time, depending on the time they stumble upon it to the time the researcher arrives. Telemetry is the process of putting radio transmitters (similar to a collar) on the animals, which would allow the researcher to track where the animal is without handling it directly.

Althoff said that any time an animal is handled, it will be stressed, but the beauty of nest boxes is that they can come and go as they please, and when researchers do observe them, it only takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes.

Each time Althoff goes out to observe the nest boxes, he invites people other than his research team to tag along, and said that it’s always fun to watch people see them for the first time, especially since he is so interested in them. “I’ve worked with quite a few different species, (but) this one is pretty fascinating… I’m continually amazed by them… They very much have my attention and  my curiosity.”

He plans to check the nest boxes again this November and continue to study the population in southeast Ohio.

Kelly is a junior who cannot believe she is already more than halfway done with her time in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Aside from College Green, she spends her time writing for OU’s College of Health Sciences and Professions and working on the Young African Leaders Initiative through the Institute for International Journalism…

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One Comment

  1. Just FYI, the word you’re looking for is “mast,” not “math.” Mast refers to a crop of fruit from forest foliage, usually trees. “Fruit” here is used in the botanical sense, so it can refer to nuts such as acorns and walnuts (hard mast) or what we typically think of as “fruit,” such as berries (soft mast).

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