Friday, October 17, 2014

Exploring the Niagara Frontier: Squirrels taking flight in Niagara County

It used to be, even going back to the early 1990s, that flying squirrels were considered rare visitors to
Niagara County. Well, the times have changed and so has the flying squirrel population.

I went almost 30 years having never seen these any of these interesting creatures. Then, starting about 10 years ago, I began to see them in good numbers.

On all occasions I saw them at dawn or dusk while up in a deer stand.

The first time, I was perched up in a tree on a dark windy morning and leaves were flying through the air at me. One leaf came in at a slow speed that defied the laws of physics and I thought to myself “what was that about?” Soon enough, the leaf showed that it wasn’t a leaf. A curious flying squirrel climbed the trunk just inches from my face to investigate. He would glide to the ground, climb back up to look eye-to-eye, then glide back to the ground. He did this about 6six times.

Two years later, I encountered a family of them at dusk from a different tree stand. They were equally playful and inquisitive ... and cute. It was a good half hour of playtime between them and me that I’ll never forget.

Numbers on the rise

Flying squirrels are increasing in number in Niagara County. (PHOTOS
Flying squirrels are nocturnal, which is why most people have never seen them. But, that doesn’t account for their past invisibility to active outdoorsmen like me. They actually weren’t here in any real numbers.

But, flying squirrels are seeing their numbers change because of the changing economy and lifestyle (and therefore environment) in Niagara County.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, small family farms were extremely abundant across the County. But, in the late-1950s things changed. The small farms began to be sold off or those families left agriculture as manufacturing grew in Niagara Falls and Lockport and blue-collar jobs popped up in Buffalo’s northtowns.

Those abandoned farms went back to what they were before the colonists set foot on American soil – forests. Those expanding woodlands and the aging oak and hickory trees in them make for great habitats for flying squirrels. They now have sprawling woodlots that they can populate.

They don’t really fly

Despite their name, flying squirrels don’t fly like bats do. They actually glide.

There is a loose membrane of skin that runs from the front legs to the rear legs. When they leap from a branch, they spread their legs. That membrane then becomes a parachute and sail (some folks would say glider wing). They can “float” for up to 80 yards — yes, not 80 feet, but 80 yards!

Where to find them

Technically, they're "gliding squirrels."
The species that you’ll encounter in Niagara County is the southern flying squirrel. Its cousin the northern flying squirrel prefers coniferous and mixed woods. You will find our flying squirrels in most any woodlot that’s over 5 acres in size and has numerous trees 40-feet or taller in height. They make their nests in tree cavities made by woodpeckers at heights between 20 and 30 feet.

Make sure that forest has good numbers of nut-bearing trees like beeches, hickories, and oaks. Like any squirrel, that’s what they eat. But, it should be noted that flying squirrels are also more carnivorous than other squirrels, eating insects like katydids, cicadas, and moths in huge numbers.

What they look like

Flying squirrels really can’t be confused with gray & red squirrels or chipmunks. They are unique.

They are very small, somewhere between the size of a chipmunk and red squirrel and have a very silky fur that is tan or cinnamon above and white below. If you see one resting during the day (which is not very likely) you will really notice the membrane folded and hanging loosely between the legs.

Their eyes are ridiculously large which helps them to see at night and really adds to their cuteness. Those eyes glow bright red when a flashlight is shined upon them.

How to see them 

To see flying squirrels, do as I did. Get up in a tree stand before the sun comes up or stick around a few minutes after it sets. It puts you in their airborne territory during the times when they like to be out and about.

Even if you are not a deer hunter and count yourself as a nature lover, spend some time in a deer stand. You will be amazed at the amount of wildlife you will see — flying squirrels are just a little bit of that experience.

You can also attract these critters to your bird feeder. They absolutely love peanut butter. They might come to it with your yard light on at night, but they will be more likely to eat there if the light is off.

How would you see them then? Many naturalists swear by putting a red light next to the feeder. That light won’t bother them and you’ll still be able to see them.

Flying squirrels are really taking off on the Niagara Frontier. One could almost say they are becoming common. If you’ve never seen one, there’s a very good chance you will someday soon.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he wishes he could fly like a squirrel. But, then again, he’d probably look goofy with a membrane of skin between his arms and legs. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 16 October 2014 East Niagara Post

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