What’s a fairy diddle? The scientific name for fairy diddles is Glaucomys volans, though most folks know of them as Southern flying squirrels. Many are surprised to hear that Northern Kentucky is home to flying squirrels, and are even more surprised to hear they’re in our neighborhoods. Flying squirrels are strictly nocturnal and seldom seen, though they will frequent bird feeders and can be seen after dark if light shines on feeders.
It’s hard not to love flying squirrels. About half the size of gray squirrels, they are true acrobats. They usually hang out in small groups and can be seen gliding from tree to tree like trapeze artists, often making sharp acrobatic turns in the air before landing. They move so quickly that it’s easy to mistake them for a bird that’s been rustled from its roost, a bat, or falling leaf. Their high-pitched “tseet” call can be heard in the treetops on quiet nights, often mistaken as insect or bird noises.
Flying squirrels don’t actually fly and would be more appropriately named gliding squirrels. A loose fold of skin runs from wrist to ankle and forms a wing-like surface that allows them to glide from tree to tree, with the flat tail serving as a rudder to guide flights. Most flights average 30 to 40 feet, but some may be as long as 300 feet. They land lightly on all fours and scurry to the opposite side of a tree trunk, thwarting any predators that may follow.
Flying squirrels are arboreal. Their livelihoods are totally dependent upon good tree cover. Trees are their highways, food source, den and nesting sites. They prefer older-growth deciduous forests and are especially fond of acorns and hickory nuts. They also eat seeds, berries, fungi, lichens, insects, mice, nestlings and eggs. They’ve been known to slice into the bark of a sugar maple and drink the sap that flows. They store great quantities of nuts for winter use; estimates are as high as 15,000 nuts in a single season.
Woodpecker holes are favored nest sites of flying squirrels. They may also build summer nests of leaves, twigs and bark similar to that of gray or fox squirrels. They are easily attracted to nest boxes. In winter several individuals may den together for added warmth. It’s not uncommon for 20 or more flying squirrels to occupy one den site during cold winter months.
Flying squirrels have two breeding seasons per year, in January-February and again in June-July. From 2 to 7 pups are born after a 40-day gestation period. Most pups will not survive their first year. Flying squirrels can live up to 10 years, with an average lifespan of 4 to 6 years.
They are also constantly alert to predators. They are fast, agile and never seem to sit still. Their large eyes afford them exceptional nighttime vision. The most successful predators of flying squirrels are owls, hawks, weasels and snakes. Free-roaming cats, especially those left to roam after dark, are probably their most serious predators.
Flying squirrels are adaptable animals that can live near human populations. If one is attracted to your feeder, approach slowly and you may get a close-up look. Because they are predominately active at night, they are not often seen; however they are very sociable and can outnumber the more familiar gray squirrel in some areas.
Whereas American woodcocks are often called timber doodles, flying squirrels are frequently called fairy diddles. The name seemingly fits.
Janet is arranging her feeders, aiming her spotlight, and preparing to hang her fairy diddle nest boxes. Janet anxiously awaits the arrival of her fairy diddles. Why? Because they’re magical.