In Search of the Rarely Seen Fluff Ball

A summer night hike in the forest by yourself isn’t so bad. You have the sounds of katydids, toads and even songbirds to keep you company as it gets dark. Once Ohio enters fall however, the evening forest changes from cheery to sullen. The sounds of insects and amphibians have all but disappeared, replaced with the occasional crack of a branch and hoot of an owl in the distance. While a bit creepy, this is the perfect time to go on the hunt for one of Ohio’s most common, yet rarely seen, creatures.

A southern flying squirrel sits at the trunk of a tree on an autumn day. Its tail is sticking straight up.
It’s not only rare to see a southern flying squirrel in the daytime, but it’s also rare to see one on the ground and not high in tree tops. Photo courtesy Corey Seeman/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When I ask guests what the most common species of squirrel in Ohio is, I usually hear gray, sometimes red and occasionally fox, but the amount of times I’ve heard the correct answer I could count on one hand. The southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) is a species that surprises many people when they hear it lives in Ohio, and it is amazingly the most numerous of all of Ohio’s squirrels. The reason most don’t have flying squirrels on their radar is while southern flying squirrels are common, they are also small, fast, nocturnal and spend most of their life high up in the trees. Oh, and did I mention I just discovered they glow pink under ultraviolet light!

A flying squirrel sits atop a bird feeder in the dark of the night, glowing bright neon pink from the light of an ultraviolet flashlight.
A flying squirrel sits atop a bird feeder in the dark of the night, glowing bright neon pink from the light of an ultraviolet flashlight. (Photo via Clearwater Times.)

I didn’t mean to end that last paragraph with such an astounding fact. I was originally going to mention their great big, cute eyes they use to evade predators and branches while gliding; also their ability to glide over 200 feet and make 90-degree turns, but this new discovery will possibly help me to actually find one of these elusive little critters in the field.

Two southern flying squirrels enjoy a midnight snack from a bird feeder.
If you’re lucky, you may see southern flying squirrels enjoying a midnight snack at your bird feeder. Photo courtesy WINDOW NUMBER SEVEN/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There are ways to see them outside. For example, you could leave extra food in your bird feeder at night and keep watch. That is easier said than done though, unless you have a motion sensor. Staring at an empty bird feeder for hours at a time at night might raise some eyebrows among your family. The other option is to go out and look for southern flying squirrels at night. I have been unsuccessful so far at finding them for six years, but I have heard there are ways to see them in the wild.

A hickory nut has a hole chewed out of the top.
A hickory nut has a hole chewed out of the top, meaning a flying squirrel was most likely nearby. Photo courtesy Nature Guelph Tracking Club.

You can find evidence of flying squirrels by checking out the tree nuts in your area. If they have smooth, round holes chewed out of the tops, you are most likely near flying squirrels. While the forest in the fall has an atmosphere of eerie quiet, this will help you listen for any leaf rustle or cracking twig the squirrel has caused. Those great big eyes of theirs will reflect light, so if you hear that rustle, you can shine a light in that direction in the hopes of catching a glimpse of them. If you go the flashlight route, it’s best to use a red filter so as not to disturb our fluffy friends too much.

The final suggestion I have is complete conjecture. Don’t get me wrong – the other, more substantiated ways of finding them haven’t worked for me either – but this one might be even more of a stretch. If flying squirrels glow under ultraviolet light, then theoretically, if you have an LED ultraviolet light that is strong enough to shine through the forests, you might be able to see the pink glow. If you see a Facebook post about glowing squirrels in the parks in the near future, you will know this was a success.

A southern flying squirrel hides behind its tail, sitting in a hole in a tree.
While adorable, it’s best to leave all wild animals alone, just like this flying squirrel is asking for privacy behind its tail. Photo courtesy Corey Seeman/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Before I let you go, I have a couple of caveats. While cute, flying squirrels are still wild animals, and can carry diseases such as typhus. So please do not try to handle or disturb a flying squirrel nest. Also, while Ohio’s forests are relatively safe, dead ash trees are just one hazard you should be aware of, so make sure to understand the potential dangers of where you are looking. All Great Parks are closed at dusk, so make sure if you partake in a night hike, you are doing so legally and safely.

This time of year may mark the beginning of the forest’s seasonal slumber, but while the crickets are no longer chirping and the flowers have withered, Ohio’s most common squirrel is still gliding through the skies, taunting me.

Tom Hughes
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods