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Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel

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Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel
Photo courtesy of the USFWS

Appearance

The Virginia northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus fuscus) has dense, soft fur that is brown on its back and slate gray colored on its belly. Its eyes are large, prominent, and dark. The squirrel's tail is broad and horizontally flattened, and there are membranes called patagia between the fore and hind legs that serve as "wings" when the squirrel glides from tree to tree.

Size

Length: between 11 and 12 inches

Weight: between 4 and 6.5 ounces

Habitat

This subspecies of flying squirrel is typically found in conifer-hardwood forests or forest mosaics consisting of mature beech, yellow birch, sugar maple, hemlock, and black cherry associated with red spruce and balsam or Fraser fir. This squirrel often lives near streams and rivers. It usually lives in small family groups in nests in tree holes and old bird nests.

Diet

Unlike other squirrels, the Virginia northern flying squirrel usually feeds on lichen and fungi growing above and below ground instead of eating strictly nuts. It also eats certain seeds, buds, fruit, cones, insects, and other scavenged animal material.

Habits

These squirrels' large, dark eyes enable them to see in low light, so they are very active during the night, moving among trees and on the ground. Unlike other squirrels, Virginia northern flying squirrels remain active in the winter instead of hibernating. Their vocalizations are varied chirps.

Reproduction

One litter of 2 to 4 young is born in May and June each year.

Geographic Range

The Virginia northern flying squirrel currently exists in red spruce forests of Highland, Grant, Greenbrier, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, Tucker, Webster counties of West Virginia.

Conservation Status

The loss of red spruce habitat by the end of the 20th century necessitated the listing of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel under the Endangered Species Act in 1985.

Estimated Population

In 1985, at the time of its Endangered Species listing, only 10 squirrels were found alive in four separate areas of its range. Today, federal and state biologists have captured more than 1,100 squirrels at over 100 sites, and they believe that this subspecies no longer faces the threat of extinction.

Population Trend

While the squirrels are dispersed irregularly throughout their historic range and at low densities, their population is determined to be stable by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The subspecies is still listed as endangered as of March, 2013.

Causes of Population Decline

Habitat destruction has been the primary cause of population decline. In West Virginia, the decline of Appalachian red spruce forests was dramatic in the 1800s. The trees were harvested to produce paper products and fine instruments (such as fiddles, guitars, and pianos). The wood was also highly valued in the ship building industry.

Conservation Efforts

"The single most important factor in the squirrels' population resurgence has been the regeneration of its forested habitat," reports the Richwood, WV website. "While that natural regrowth has been ongoing for decades, there is considerable and growing interest by the U.S. Forest Service Monongahela National Forest and Northeastern Research Station, the state of West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Department of Forestry and State Park commission, The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups, and private entities to foster large spruce restoration projects that restore the historic red spruce ecosystem of the Allegheny Highlands."

Since being declared endangered, biologists have placed and encouraged public placement of nest boxes in 10 counties of western and southwestern Virginia.

Primary predators of the squirrel are owls, weasels, foxes, mink, hawks, raccoons, bobcats, skunks, snakes, and domestic cats and dogs.

How You Can Help

Keep pets indoors or in an enclosed outdoor pen, especially at night.

Donate volunteer time or money to the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI).

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