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NatureSpeak Articles

Whistler's northern flying squirrel

SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO. FLYING HIGH - The northern flying squirrel inhabits older-growth coniferous forests of North America.

Tis the season for declines in temperature, heavier snowfalls and fewer animals roaming around Whistler. Some of these Whistler locals may migrate, while some may hibernate, but others have evolved to hunker down and survive the chilly, wet conditions. One of these well-prepared critters is the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus). Found throughout all of Whistler's diverse seasons, these nocturnal squirrels are abundant in both the local forests and urban landscapes.

The northern flying squirrel is the ideal Canadian resident, inhabiting dense older-growth coniferous forests found throughout much of northern North America. These squirrels generally nest in holes in large, dead trees but have also been known to nest underground or within constructed leaf nests. Except when rearing young, the squirrels move from nest to nest frequently. As they do not migrate or hibernate, northern flying squirrels rely on the comfort and warmth of others to help them survive the colder winter temperatures, often bunking up in dens with two to 10 other squirrels. Their breeding season ranges from late March through May, with an average litter size of two to four young.

Northern flying squirrels are approximately 25 to 35 centimetres in length and have broad flattened tails. The fur on their back is a cinnamon or light brown in colour, contrasted by a white under belly. These smaller creatures have distinguished large, black eyes that facilitate effective night vision. This is necessary because, unlike other squirrels that we frequently see, northern flying squirrels hide away during the day and become active only after the sun has set. Although their name would lead you to believe they can fly, that is not actually the case. These squirrels are equipped with two furry membranes called patagia that span from their wrists to ankles, allowing them to live on the edge and glide from tree to tree. With leaps that can span anywhere from five to 50 metres, this form of transportation has proven to be extremely effective.

Described as omnivores, these squirrels feast on mushrooms, lichen, tree sap, nuts, seeds, berries, insects, and even the odd egg or nestling. Much of the squirrel's foraging happens on the forest bottom, even though they are known to be clumsy walkers. Scavenging for food works to satisfy their hunger, but it is also important for the squirrels to secure food caches or reserves for the winter. These reserves are stored in their nests for when their food sources begin to diminish. Predation is always a worry for northern flying squirrel with large predators ranging from barred and great-horned owls to red-tailed hawks, lynx, and even domestic cats!

Written by: Erin Edwards


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