In 2002, Jolie, my intrepid companion, and I moved to Belgrade Lakes village to a home with a huge oak on the back lawn. While sitting in a hot tub on the deck after dark, we soon noticed occasional flying squirrels gliding from oak limbs, usually on clear nights with the last feeble light on the edge of the western horizon, illuminating them just enough.

Maine habitat supports northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus), and we occasionally spotted these rodents from spring to fall, probably feeding on buds, insects and acorns, according to the seasons. This species doesn’t go into torpor in winter like southern flying squirrels (G. volans), but I’ve never seen northern flying squirrels active in winter.

The flying squirrels in Belgrade Lakes village were not my first encounter with them. When I was growing up in Windsor, my cousins and I played Cowboys and Indians or Army after dark, and the game often went like this: We divided into two sides on the front lawn, and one group ran to the backyard to hide before the other came around to attack.

Out back, a large oak stood close to the home’s northwest corner, and a dim porch light on the northeast side illuminated the trunk’s bottom, but less so the canopy. While waiting for the other group to sneak around, I’d occasionally see something in the oak flitting from limb to limb and maybe flying straight from the tree – often 50 to 100 feet or more.

A tidbit on the internet caught my eye: Northern flying squirrels can glide two-and-a-half times their height off the ground. For example, a squirrel crouched on a limb 50 feet up can fly 125 feet; 100 feet up, 250 feet; and 120 feet up, 300 feet.

In air, a flying squirrel spreads its legs into an X-shape that turns the loose membrane into a rough square for gliding. Then, it flies downward at angles of 30 to 40 degrees and efficiently changes directions in flight, even making 90-degree turns. After landing in a tree, it often runs to the back of the trunk or climbs to the crown top to escape predators.

At first, I surmised the critters were nocturnal birds about the size of a blue jay, but I eventually identified them as squirrels. My father told me they were flying squirrels that glided in the air, but he readily admitted he knew little about the species. He had also noticed the squirrels in our oak at night.

Years later in my teaching days, students brought flying squirrels to science class, often in a shoebox, giving me a close-up view of this mammal’s huge night eyes and membrane attached between its legs for a wing, enabling such successful gliding skills.

My experience with the northern variety often included oaks, so I assumed they were a creature of deciduous forests, but wildlife biologists claim they prefer mixed growth woodlands – particularly hemlock-birch or hemlock-maple. Beyond a stately pine grove at my boyhood home, the deeper forests held plenty of birch, maple, oak, hemlock, spruce, fir, etc.

According to “Wild Mammals of New England,” Alfred J. Godin claimed northern flying squirrels forage on nuts, seeds, buds, catkins, berries, fruits, insects, slugs, small birds, eggs, small mammals, lichens and mushroom. Other guidebooks added carrion and sap to the list.

Here’s a little tidbit about alleged herbivores eating bird eggs, chicks and small mammals: In the early 1990s, I recall reading a Midwest deer study, in which ornithologists focused miniature, remote video cameras on bird nests containing chicks and recorded deer eating the young birds.

(Like flying squirrels, red squirrels also forage on spring sap by biting through maple bark and allowing the sugar-laden liquid to ooze out. Then this squirrel often waits for sunlight to dry the sap a little to concentrate the sugar for a “high.”)

Hunters know about gray squirrels fleeing to the backside of a trunk to hide and evade sharp shooters. When they pulled this maneuver in my childhood squirrel-hunting days, I’d hang my plaid-red coat on a bush and circle to the opposite side of the tree. The hiding squirrel would flee back to the other side and assume the coat was a hunter. That trick would flush the creature back to me for a shot.

Flying squirrels offer perfect examples of behavioral and physical evolution. They are nocturnal, because gliding during daylight leaves them so vulnerable to predation. (Squirrel species that do not fly hunker down in the dark and move around in daylight.)

Yes, earlier in the column, that figure about gliding the distance from goal line to goal line impressed me – not a bad distance for an animal that measures 103/8 to 141/2 inches long and weighs 11/2 to 21/2 ounces – one of nature’s marvels. Spring is around the corner, and they’ll be plenty active after dark for me to watch from the warmth of a hot tub.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at

[email protected]