Flying squirrels at the feeder at night

The second half of November is typically the time when we experience the freeze-up in the Northland. Open waters early in the month give way to ice-covering by the end. The usual pattern is that the smaller bodies of water ice up first, followed ...

Four flying squirrels share a meal on a platform during a chilly night. (Photos by Larry Weber)

The second half of November is typically the time when we experience the freeze-up in the Northland. Open waters early in the month give way to ice-covering by the end. The usual pattern is that the smaller bodies of water ice up first, followed by the larger bodies and lastly, the moving waters.

As expected this year, the ponds that I regularly visited were coated before the middle of the month. A nearby swamp froze about the same time. These were what I expected, but when the local lakes also froze over by the middle of November, this was a surprise. Not only did we have an earlier-than-normal freeze-up, maybe a week before the usual, we also received a snow that appears to be lasting.

It is not that different from normal to get snowfall in early November. Typically these white blankets early in the month are composed of wet snow and do not last long, melting in a few days. But when we got the 6-12-inch snowfall on Nov. 10-11, it was different. Falling in temperatures of about 20 degrees, the snow was of a drier type, more of a powder than we usually get in November. It was like what we see in December. The subsequent falling temperatures kept the snow with us. And now, during the third week of this month, we appear to be entering the long time of ice and snow cover. Several sites already have recorded subzero temperatures.

This early-season snow cover, along with the freeze, puts an end to the time that I refer to as AutWin, the time between the leaf-drop and the lasting snow. This year it was only about three weeks.

But it also ushers in another remarkable time: the season of animal tracking. During my walks since the snowfall, I found the signs and tracks of a dozen kinds of animals, still quite active in the region. Most of the critters themselves, I did not see. Also, the snow and cold has brought a good number of birds to the feeders.


Like many in the Northland, I begin my bird-feeding about mid-October. Starting with just sunflower seeds, I was able to attract the permanent residents such as chickadees and nuthatches, but migrating sparrows and juncos also stopped to feed before continuing their southbound trek. The arrival of a few finches - goldfinches, pine siskins and purple finches - told me that it was time to add thistle seed to the feeders. And seeing downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers here let me know to put out suet as well. If we build it, they will come. Days now show 5-10 kinds of birds dropping by for a snack.

Along with them are the ever-present gray squirrels. On some days, they may outnumber the birds. For several weeks, these arboreal rodents shared the dining with a ground-dwelling cousin, the chipmunks. But it appears as though the chippers have gone to sleep. Soon I expect the energetic red squirrels will be here, too. Now, however, it looks like grays are the only squirrels at the feeders - in the daytime.

When the early darkness becomes a regular part of our evening and the mercury begins to fall, I decided that it was time to make use of the feeders at night as well as daytime. Shortly after our chilly snow cover began, I went out at dusk to fill a tree platform with sunflower seeds and I turned on our floodlight, illuminating the feeders. In the gathering darkness, I hoped to see some visitors. The result was quicker than I expected. By the middle of the month, the regular night feeders had arrived. Each night now, I'm able to look out at the tree platform and watch the energetic feeding antics of flying squirrels.

Though many small mammals are active at night, the little flyers are the only tree squirrels to do so. Being only about the size of red squirrels, these nocturnals are well-adapted to moving at night. Huge eyes allow them to see well in the darkness. They not only can find food that I put out, they are able to maneuver through the trees to get to it.

Carrying a misnomer name, they do not fly, but use a fold of skin that extends from front to hind legs to glide among the trees. Sailing through the forest at night demands much steering skills and the flat tail, acting like a rudder, is able to do just that.

These little squirrels with big eyes are full of energy and movements as they take the seed meals. They are also quite gregarious and it is not unusual for a half-dozen to gather on the platform. The early darkness and the impending cold may affect us, but these critters appear to thrive in it. I look forward to many more night visits from flying squirrels on the feeding platform and the birds during the day.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o .


A flying squirrel pauses on a tree during its night movements. Notice the large eyes and flat tail.

What To Read Next
Get Local