Red Squirrels

A UK Perspective

I am from the South West of England where the native Red squirrels no longer exist. Eastern Grey squirrels were introduced to the UK from North America in the 19th century and carry the parapox virus, which is fatal to red squirrels. I didn't see a red squirrel until my 30's and didn't befriend one until my 40's, so saw them as a rare and magical creature for most of my life.

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My first encounter with a grey squirrel, taken in the midlands (2002)

I took the above image just after buying my first digital SLR. Although Red squirrels can still be found in the north (where pine martins keep the Grey populations down) and a few islands; For most people in England & Wales, this is what a squirrel looks like. A much larger, mostly grey, fluffy-tailed rodent, with a brown head and cream underbelly. They're generally more chilled out than their red cousins. In cities they are usually pretty friendly.

Eurasian Red

After moving to Sweden a few years ago I became more interested in wildlife. Even or especially in the cities, there is a lot of nature here. Animals seem more chilled out here. Blue tits (Blåmes) come into my bedroom window while I'm working (see here). Although I struggled for a long time to get close to squirrels here, I eventually found a couple friendly batches. I started this page to document my observations and experiences of interacting with these adorable fluffy critters.

 

Both grey and red squirrels are tree dwelling rodents that do not hibernate. Although incompatible, they share a lot of visual & behavioural characteristics. Other than the colour and dimensions (greys being up to double the size), the most noticeable visual differences between them is their ears... well, most of the time.

 

Winter Coat

Red squirrel's tufty ears are part of their winter coat. This also effects their tail and the fur on their back. It grows in the Autumn and usually malts away in the spring. Apart from looking adorable and keeping them warm, those tufty extensions help to show off their expressions (see here). You can also sometimes see a striped pattern in the ear tufts (depending on the light).

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Colours

Colouration in the Red's ears and coat can vary significantly. Even with their winter coat they can remain mostly red in colour. However, some can range from light grey to very dark brown (see the two males above, from the same park). Their ears, arms, feet and tail usually retain their year-round colour, but this too can be very dark. As the main fur coat (on their back) gets thicker, depending on how cold it gets, it also gets more grey. In the summer they will usually malt down to a deeper red colour.

Extra Whiskers

After editing a few hundred squirrel photos you start to notice little details and one of these was a single strangely long hair on each arm. My guess is that these are like whiskers. Essentially little sensors that communicate proximity to elements around them they might not be able to see. Perhaps like cat's whiskers; giving a senses of whether they can fit into a small space. This might also be because they can't see well close up and their nose can obscure things near their mouth. Quite what these oddly placed whiskers on a squirrel are is still a mystery to me, but they must be important.

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Feet & Hands

Their double jointed ankles enable them to zip around trees quickly and reliably. Their arm gestures are surprisingly human like. When stretched out (which you won't often see) their hands look 'werewolf' freakishly long, with very large/deep pads.

 

Conversely their thumbs are absolutely tiny. When I first noticed them I thought it was an injury or deformation, but they are simply hidden away and rather small. Set quite far back from their fingers and not having a claw, these digits aren't used for climbing. They might appear to be a bit pointless, but in fact they get a lot of use when eating. They also don't appear to touch the ground when walking, so perhaps this keeps them cleaner for use with food.

These squirrel's claws are quite dark, but this doesn't seem to be the case for all Eurasian reds. Many in more southern parts of Europe (or the ones left in the UK) can be quite bright. This brighter complexion seems to follow their skin tone, so the opposite trend observed in humans. This does not seem to be linked to the brightness of their fur. If you know why this might be please let me know.

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Behaviour

Like most wild creatures squirrels generally avoid humans, but in cities they can adapt... perhaps a little too well. Squirrels might be opportunistic fluffy-tailed tree-rats, but the way they look and act appeals to humans and this inevitably accelerates their behavioural reshaping. In a busy park there's enough animal friendly passers-by to make this happen fairly quickly.

The level of trust we get from these squirrels is common with greys in London parks, but not so much from reds in Europe. I have visited many parks in this city and this is the only place I've seen anything like this. I have been told by other squirrel aficionados in Europe that this is quite unusual, so I very much appreciate how lucky I am to have this interaction.

The group of red squirrels that you see here are a pack of about ten. It's led by two females, possibly sisters as they have similar markings. These female are constantly chasing the males away to keep them in line, but are by far the most friendly to the human food source. This makes the males too nervous to approach people while the females are around. This was made clear in the weeks while the girls were away having babies. During this time the males were noticeably more chilled out and would start to approach us for food. It's quite possible that the males deserve this rage however, as they can be a threat to young squirrels.

An interesting behavior that I've noticed after watching squirrels for a while is when they seem to lick branches. Some people say this is due to them scenting or smelling the scent of another squirrel. I have seen them rub their teeth on moss after eating, which I'm pretty sure is them cleaning themselves, but this is different from the first behaviour.

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Food

I wouldn't recommend that everyone tries to hand feed squirrels, it's not guaranteed to be safe for you or the squirrel. If you're unlucky enough to get a bite from a scared squirrel you'll know what 48 megapascals (or 7000 psi) of pressure feels like on your finger. That's more than a Great White Shark or a Crocodile, so they can cause a lot of damage if they want to! Letting them be wild and observing them from afar is usually the best approach. In this case, the squirrels are often eating peanuts from bird feeders in a park (mentioned more below). Giving them something that's more healthy for them, while also allowing the birds better access to their own food seemed like the right thing to do.

 

In a natural habitat squirrels can eat all sorts of things. Pine cones, seeds, mushrooms, flowers and much more. They can healthily eat many fruits and vegetables. In winter they will hunt down higher sources of protein, which is where nuts come in. Hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans and almonds are all usually enjoyed. Anything with a shell will help to keep their teeth (which never stop growing) in check with gnawing. Peanuts don't contain much nutrients, thus would not be good to fill them up with in winter. Raw peanuts can contain a toxic fungus to squirrels so it's easier to avoid peanuts entirely. Brazil nuts are also really bad for them.

Squirrels will eat just about anything and like us, can be drawn to junk food. Bread, processed or salty foods are really bad for them, so if your squirrels don't eat from a bin that's a good thing. Luckily in this case there are not many bins in this park and people don't often bringing junk food to the area.

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Whether you're interested in photographing or feeding squirrels, one thing that might help to keep them near you is the size of the food. If you feed them large chunks of food (like a whole hazelnut or walnut) they will likely be triggered into running away to bury it. If you want them to stay roughly where they are and eat then breaking the nuts in to smaller pieces helps a lot. Alternatively just use smaller food (like sunflower seeds). If you find them vacuuming up the pieces to run away and bury they're most likely not hungry.

Spring

This year was my first time observing baby squirrels and my first time seeing this location (below). Since it was a mossy forest in spring it was already rather beautiful, but add to that; posing baby red squirrels and the levels of pretty kinda go off the chart. This batch was a group of four, which is a pretty normal size. Red squirrels can have two litters per year, the main one being born in early spring and another in early autumn. At the point you see below they had been out of the nest for about a month. Unfortuantely this is also the time that tics come out and they were having a field day with these squirrels. Tics here in Sweden can carry the TBE disease, wich can be pretty nasty so we have had our shots. I highly recommend checking your area to see if you need to do the same. 

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Summer

As spring progresses toward summer the red squirrels winter coat usually starts to malt and those beautiful tufty ears disappear. This will make them look a bit rough for a while, but it will settle into a more straight red colour. Sometimes the malt can take quite a lot of fur with it, some people jump to the conclusion that it's mange, but this is pretty rare by comparison, so don't worry if you see some patchy fur on your squirrels this time of year.

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Photography

Initially struggling to get good photos with even a big tele lens, after finding this friendly bunch I had the opposite problem. Having squirrels stand next to (or on) you is cool for a smart phone, but tricky with minimum focus distances for a proper camera & lens. I largely solved this by getting my wife to feed them while I used the camera (or vice versa). If you're on your own it can be tough to keep them in the right range, but with some carefully placed food and/or choosing specific equipment it can be done. Macro or super wide lenses can help for friendly subjects, but...

Squirrels tend to favour secluded places where they feel safe, but light is often an issue. Avoiding noise and/or blur with schizo fluffy tail-rats in dark conditions can be a real challenge. Feeding them in the winter is often easier or better. This means potentially less foliage, which can help, but then less sunlight hours and less reliable weather. This often culminates in some pretty dark conditions.

 

Using the fastest lenses you can find will help. As does larger, more modern camera sensors. Although this issue can be somewhat fixed by simply throwing money at it, if you're on a modest budget don't be deterred. Older mirrorless cameras (like the original Sony A7) still have good image quality and can be picked up pretty cheaply these days. They can easily adapt cheap old manual lenses too, which can work for these subjects surprisingly well with a bit of practice and patience.

Equipment

The camera I use is a Sony A9; The first professional full frame mirrorless camera (2017). Able to shoot silently, faster than any pro DSLR, while not having issues with fast moving subjects. This makes it great for wildlife, but also for video (which can record decent quality 4K @ 30fps, or 1080p @ 120fps). Although I shoot exclusively electronic shutter with this camera, the silent functionality isn't often needed. Squirrels that are comfortable with hand feeding won't care about a clicky noise, actually they can come to associate it with food if you come often, so no fancy gear is really "needed" here.

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Sony A9 + Sigma DG DN 85mm f/1.4 Art lens

This Sigma DG DN 85mm f/1.4 Art lens is one of my favourites for shooting squirrels. It let's in lots of light and has silent focusing, which is great video. I have recently starting using a 90mm f/2.8 macro lens, which can be great for squirrels despite the 2 stops reduction in light gathering. For when the squirrels are further away I use a 200-600mm which is great, but the f/6.3 max aperture is not really ideal for subjects or conditions like this.

Video

Over the last month visiting these squirrels I have started to shooting more video of squirrels, mostly because I can and it helps to show off their personality better. This is something that I am less comfortable with, but I felt like I had to try considering how close these squirrels allow me to get with a camera. 

More Images

As I get more images of these friendly squirrels and some more wild ones in the area I wanted to make a general gallery, so as to keep the top gallery not overly long and get into the article more quickly. As this article grows and I collect more images of these squirrels I am more tempted to make book from it and start selling photo via a printing service. If this is something that interests you let me know.