Southern flying squirrel clinging to a tree at night in southeastern Illinois

Gray squirrels are a common sight in many city parks and rural woodlands, but where do flying squirrels live? Like their flightless relatives, flying squirrels thrive in a habitat with many trees and plenty of places to find their favorite food. Unlike other squirrels, they use trees as launching pads.

Flying squirrels don’t really fly. They glide. To get started, they push themselves off the trunk or large branch of a tree. They stretch out their limbs so that two folds of skin along the sides of their body fan out like sails. Momentum carries them through the air until they land on the next tree up to 320 feet away.

World wide, 43 types of flying squirrels live across three continents. One species — the Siberian flying squirrel — lives in northern Eurasia. Two groups live in North America, with very small populations found in Mexico and Central America. Many species live in the rain forests of India and Southeast Asia, and several species, such as the San Bernardino flying squirrel, populate tiny areas and may be threatened with extinction. Seven species live in central Africa.

Flying squirrels flourish in climates from temperate to tropical, with a few living in Arctic conditions, but one thing they all have in common is that they need trees. They are good at gliding around forests, but not so good at walking. On the ground they are slow and clumsy, making them vulnerable to predators.

North American Flying Squirrels
Two types live in the forests of North America: the northern flying squirrel and the southern flying squirrel. Northern flying squirrels live throughout Canada and in southeast Alaska. South of Canada,they range into California and can be found in the Yosemite Valley. In the east, their range extends throughout New England and into Pennsylvania. Two sub-species of the northern flying squirrel live in small areas of the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Carolina and the Virginia northern flying squirrel.

outhern flying squirrels range from the northeast of the United States south to Florida. In the west, they can be found from Minnesota to Texas. One species lives in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California. Compared to the patchy range of the northern flying squirrel, the range of the southern flying squirrel is more cohesive.

It can be difficult to tell northern and southern flying squirrels apart because they are similar in size and coloring. The northern flying squirrel is slightly smaller, weighing about five ounces. Both are gray and light brown in color, although the northern flying squirrel has a white belly. Their ranges overlap, but one clue to identification is, where do flying squirrels live? The northern flying squirrel generally prefers higher elevations with mostly coniferous — or cone-bearing — trees such as fir, spruce and cedar. The southern flying squirrel is more likely to be found in forests of deciduous trees — those that lose their leaves in the fall. A good way to decide which type of flying squirrel is living in a particular place is to look at the trees.

Another question to answer when identifying flying squirrels is, when are they active? Northern flying squirrels are more tolerant of cold and are active in the winter. Southern flying squirrels are more likely to hole up in their nests and sleep through some of the coldest days, although neither species hibernates for the entire season. Winter snow is no problem for either northern or southern flying squirrels. They glide over the drifts or tunnel under the snow, which shields them from prowling predators.

Both northern and southern flying squirrels prefer old-growth forests because they need tall trees with thick cover for protection from the animals that hunt them. Many animals feed on flying squirrels, including foxes and raccoon, birds of prey such as owls and hawks, and even house cats. The small rodents escape from those fierce hunters by gliding from tree to tree and hiding among the twigs and leaves.

Another reason why the question where do flying squirrels live is important is that the squirrels nest in fallen trees but not thin, scrubby ones. They look for snags — dead trees that remain standing — with wide-diameter trunks, that is, older trees, and they seek out nooks and crevices in the decaying wood. They will make use of old woodpecker holes if they find them. They line their nest-holes with shredded moss, leaves and lichen. Sometimes they will build shaggy-looking nests high in trees where two branches join. They will come to human-built nesting boxes, but only if the boxes are in the forested habitat they prefer. They will also take seeds and suet from backyard bird feeders that are within their range.

Flying squirrels are omnivores, so they eat both plants and animals. Important food sources are seeds, lichens, berries and fungi, items that are plentiful in the dense forests they inhabit. In winter, coniferous seeds are a vital food, but flying squirrels will also store nuts and lichens in tree crevices and in holes in the ground, like their non-flying relatives. As omnivores, flying squirrels will feed on insects and animals such as mice, shrews, nestling birds and even carrion — the flesh of dead animals. They eat more animal foods than most other rodents.

For more information about flying squirrels, please visit whatdosquirrelseat.org.