If you’re camping in western Montana, bats may not be the only fuzzy things soaring over your head at night. Not to worry, though. The northern flying squirrel is an enchanting creature, less a vampiric terror than a flying teddy bear.
While most flying squirrels live in Africa or parts of India, two species are found in North America. One of those, the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus), is native to western Montana. These adorable rodents are also called “fairy gliders” or even “fairy diddles,” the latter a somewhat ridiculous name most likely used by people so overwhelmed by seeing one of these elusive creatures that they were reduced to incoherent tittering.
To call these fascinating animals “flying” squirrels is somewhat generous, because they are not true fliers like birds and bats. Instead, the squirrels navigate their forest habitats by gliding from tree to tree. A single bound is, on average, about 98 feet, or roughly the length of an NBA basketball court, but glides as long as 295 feet have been recorded.
The gliding is made possible by a large flap of skin connected to a cartilaginous membrane that runs from the squirrel’s wrist to its ankle. When leaping from one tree to another, the squirrel flings its arms and legs apart dramatically, effectively turning itself into a fuzzy paper airplane. Its paddle-like tail acts as a rudder. The northern flying squirrel is relatively small and weighs in at a scant 2.6-5.1 ounces. That’s nothing compared to the largest flyingsquirrel, the woolly, found in Pakistan, which can reach a hefty 3.3-4.4 pounds. The woolly glides like a pro, despite being the size of a Chihuahua.
The northern flying squirrel’s distinctive cartilaginous membrane has another advantage beyond just allowing it to catch air. These squirrels are major prey for raptors, wild cats of all sizes, coyotes and the occasional weasel. When threatened, a fairy glider’s first instinct is to flatten itself against a branch or the trunk of a tree; its expansive brown coat serves as convincing camouflage. If that doesn’t work, evading a predator is made easier with the help of its built-in parachute. It can simply scramble to a sufficiently high vantage and launch itself into the air and away from danger.
Fairy diddles also sometimes catch a lucky break—literally. Should its tail end up in the paws or claws of a foe, the tail may break off, allowing the squirrel to escape without sustaining serious damage, besides a ding to their ego.
Flying squirrels are most active at night and spend their days curled up in communal nests inside of dead trees. Sightings are rare, but not impossible. On your next venture into a local coniferous forest, keep your eyes up. You may be lucky enough to spot a fairy one night yourself.