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Red Squirrels

Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are a rather skittish, mostly solitary and highly territorial animal that can paradoxically display a surprising trust in humans. Capable of trading adorable poses for nutty nutrients, they adapt to life alongside people as well as they do extreme cold. Evolved for high speed vertical travel and tree dwelling, these fascinating arboreal spirits are a joy to watch.

My UK Perspective

I should first explain that some of my fascination of Red squirrels stems from their mythical status when growing up in the UK (south west). This native squirrel population has been decimated by: Extreme habitat loss, over-hunting (for dumb reasons), domestic predation (mostly cats), road deaths and last but certainly not least - the introduction of the Eastern Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensisin the 1870's). The significantly larger and more numerous (per square km) Grey out-compete Red's for food and are carriers of a virus that is only deadly to Reds. Grey squirrels have thrived where the Red squirrels could not (see squirrel population below).

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Red and Grey UK squirrel distributionCraig Shuttleworth/RSST ©

When the native squirrel population got dangerously low, attempts were made to bolster numbers by bringing thousands of red squirrels over from Scandinavia. It was assumed that these animals were similar due to the landmasses being connected at the end of the last ice age (12,000 years ago). Unfortunately, we now know the UK red squirrels are a different subspecies (Sciurus vulgaris leucourus), so now a majority of the remaining UK Red squirrels are yet another different animal (albeit mostly indistinguishable). The "leucourus" sub-species can be identified by their winter tail moulting away to a progressively blonde colour as they get older. These remaining native Reds are known to be found in the South West of Scotland, the Isle of Wight & Brownsea Island.

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Leamington Spa, UK (2002)

Sweden

I had only seen Grey squirrels until my mid-30's, but in 2016 I moved to Göteborg. The Swedish Red (Sciurus Vulgaris Vulgarisis the only one you'll find here... wait... someone called these majestic creatures "shadow tail, common, common"?... Jeez, we really phoned that one in, didn't we Sweden?! Although the "species" covers all of Scandinavia and West Russia, the genius who actually wrote that down was Swedish. Yeah, wow! Anyway, initially all I saw was an occasional red blur jumping between the treetops, but eventually I managed to find a few friendly specimens. They are fortunate to be far away from any invasive Grey squirrels, but unfortunately it's being considered to allow hunting them again. Not because their numbers are high, just to scratch that psychopath itch for some socially accepted nut jobs. After all, animals that are't endangered a "resource", apparently. F*** me Sweden! Silly names aside, I expected more from you...

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Greys vs Reds

Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are similar in appearance and mannerisms to Reds. They share enough with their furry cousins across the pond, that their family tree likely split with the breakup of the continental plates (after Pangea). Both are nut obsessed fluffy tailed tree rats that do not hibernate, but apart from the grey's disease and destruction, there are a few other aspects that set them apart. Greys are both physically bigger and can store significantly more body fat, making them weigh up to twice as much. Eurasian Red squirrels grow an extra thick winter coat to deal with the colder weather. 

 

Grey squirrels are more friendly with each other (often nesting together), this lack of hostility extends to humans. Grey's diet is more varied, although Reds can just about survive in pine forests where Greys struggle to get enough nutrition. This is one reason why you see Reds mostly relegated to the North of the UK, but predators are another factor. Greys are too large to escape from Pine Martens.

Identification between the Red & Grey squirrels is only really needed in the UK and parts of Northern Italy (they are not meant to coexist). Even if it wasn't for the deadly Squirrel Pox virus, the two species cannot interbreed, so there are no mixed versions. Telling Reds and Greys apart can be a little tricky for the uninitiated. Greys can be kind of red and reds can be kind of grey (although the latter is due to their winter coat, which the greys don't have).  Grey's have a white tip to their tail fur, giving it a bright halo (see above), whereas Red's tails usually end with a mid to dark red colour (see below), although most are not as contrasty and colourful as this one.

Miss-identification of greys in Europe happens due to fears of the UK's invasive Grey situation repeating on the mainland. Unfortunately this has already started in Northern Italy (where they were introduced in the 1950's). They are seemingly contained by the mountains bordering Switzerland and so far their spread has been rather slow. The UK's relatively fast spread is less likely viral in nature and more likely caused by the mass importation and human assisted movement of the animals.

Red Squirrels - Winter Coat

The most obvious characteristic of Red squirrels are their huge tufted ears. This is part of their winter coat, which makes their fur thicker and their back a more silvery grey colour. At this latitude (58°), it moults away during the brightest three months of the year. Apart from their ears looking adorable and keeping them warm, they also have a pretty striped pattern (containing 3 to 6 dark bands). This helps to differentiate them from other rodents and makes them more popular.

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Colour & Variety

Hundreds of years ago, colour variation was used to identify 60+ subspecies of Red, but after some more scientific research that number was whittled down to 23. The two squirrels (above) show some colour variation in the same sub-species of Swedish Red (same area & time of year). Their ears, arms, feet and tail usually retain their year-round colour, which ranges from pale to very dark red. As autumn kicks in and the day light hours shorten (not related to temperature) their ears, tail and coat gets thicker and their back gets more silvery grey. In the summer they will moult down to a deeper, more uniform red colour and lose the tufted ears (for about 3 months).

From my observations; Many of the Central European Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris fuscoater), have brighter claws, whiskers and skin compared to their Scandinavian cousins (Sciurus vulgaris vulgaris). In areas of Southern Germany and Switzerland there is a melanistic (almost black) variant of the "fuscoater", which doesn't qualify as its own subspecies. Whereas a similarly dark, red squirrel in southern Italy was recently elevated to full species status (Sciurus meridionalis / Calabrian Black Squirrel ) after being also considered part of the "fuscoater" subspecies until 2017. In Hokkaido (Sciurus vulgaris orientis) their Red squirrels have a slightly lighter melanistic coat, but everywhere else in Japan is only populated by Sciurus Lis, another very similar looking squirrel.

Extra Whiskers

After editing a few hundred squirrel photos I noticed a strangely long hair on their forearms. These little whiskers likely communicates proximity to objects they are unable to see (due to the shape of their skull). Helping them to squeeze into smaller spaces or warn them about their surroundings. There are multiple whiskers on each arm. They can be surrounded by different colour fur when their coat changes and are attached to a small bump on their skin (seen on young rescue squirrel before the fur had grown in).

Feet & Hands

Squirrel's double jointed ankles and sharp claws enable them to play fast and loose with gravity. Chasing each other around while clinging on to tree bark all day essentially keeps their claws about as sharp as physically possible. Despite squirrels usually being very gentle with the delicate human vending machines, I have been scratched a few times accidentally, so be careful (get your shots)!

 

Conversely their thumbs are adorably cute and tiny (see above). 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, they don't have a claw, but sometimes they have a small nail. They might appear to be a bit pointless (pun intended), but in fact they get a lot of use when eating, so this Vestigial appendage is unlikely to entirely evolve away. They're not used for climbing and appear not to touch the ground when walking, so perhaps this keeps them cleaner for use with food.

Eyes

Squirrels eyes mostly look black, but in some lighting conditions you can just about see where their pupils are. They do show up pretty well in the near-infrared wavelengths however (see below). These huge eyes are mostly for spotting sudden movements from predators. For everything else they mostly rely on a sense of sound, smell and touch. You can test this by throwing food for them. Most often they will fumble around for it, sniffing the ground as they go. It doesn't matter where it lands, they will not see it with any accuracy.

Injuries

Where the near-infrared image (above) captured wavelengths between 830nm to 1,100nm (visible light to humans is 400 - 700nm), this next image captures wavelengths between 8,000nm to 14,000nm to show thermal data. This is in the mid-IR range. Apart from showing escaping heat where you would expect, it also told me that the squirrel's right paw was abnormally warm. This confirmed an injury that we could see (he was limping). After two weeks we foud him again and the hand had healed almost completely. He was walking on the paw just fine and the heat looked the same in both hands.

The camera used here was: Hikmicro Explorer E20 Plus

Behaviour & Befriending

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.

 

If you manage to find some squirrels in a park that are already friendly then you're lucky, but even if that's the case you will need to show them a lot of respect. Let them come to you, move very slowly, give them space and only feed them foods that are safe for them (see below). This is the same if you're trying to befriend fully wild squirrels too, but here you will have to put in a lot more work.

 

Squirrels are highly food motivated. If trying to tame fully wild squirrels, I recommend putting up feeders for them. Somewhere as high up off the ground as possible, in a tree that they can get to from other trees. A trail camera can be a great way to see how many turn up and at what times, but also to see what goes on in general. See what times they come to the feeder and fill it up at those times. As they see you fill up the feeder they will begin to associate you with providing the food (you may not see them at first). The more time you spend there the more comfortable they will get with you.

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Observing squirrels for any amount of time will show some fascinating behaviours, but although you can find various explanations for them online you should take them with pinch of salt. Even animal "specialists" love to anthropomorphize. The frantic side-to-side tail wagging (for example) has been linked to pretty much every possible emotion. Of course that wouldn't make much sense as a form of communication. Now, one or two of these "guesses" might be close to the truth, but they are often presented as "facts" so as to sound like an authority on the subject, which just bugs the hell out of me. OK, rant over, on with the squirrel "observations"...

Food - Good

In a natural habitat squirrels can eat all sorts of things. Seeds, nuts, berries, mushrooms, fruit, flowers, plants, tree sap, insects and more... occasionally birds eggs (but let's not talk about that). They can also gnaw on animal skeletons for the calcium. In winter they will usually draw food from their cached store of nuts. Hazelnuts, Walnuts, Pecans, Pine nuts, Sunflower seeds, Sweet Chestnuts are all great sources. Sweet Almonds only contain a trace of cyanide, so are fine for us to eat, but it's probably best not to feed too much of them to smaller animals. Anything with a shell will help to keep their teeth in check with gnawing (as they never stop growing).

Food - Bad

Squirrels won't naturally dislike foods they don't normally have access to, so don't assume that because they eat something that it's good for them. It's up to us to be careful what we feed them. Don't take my word for it, do your own research before feeding them. I took my info about peanuts partially from the 'Wildlife Trust' (a national wildlife charity), which I "trust" much more than a shop selling animal food and insisting that peanuts are fine. Peanuts don't contain much nutrients for squirrels. If they eat them exclusively they will develop severe calcium deficiencies, which can easily get them killed (less than half make it past the first year).

 

Wheat, dried maize and peas are not good foods for squirrels (peanuts are a pea, not a nut). Raw peanuts, Brazil nuts, bitter almonds and dried fruits like Raisins should never be given to squirrels. Just like us squirrels can be drawn to junk food. Processed or salty foods are much worse for squirrels than they are for us and should be avoided as they can lead to dehydration and kidney problems.

Handling

I don't recommend trying to hand feed squirrels, it's not guaranteed to be safe for you or the squirrel. If you're unlucky enough to get a scared bite from a squirrel you'll discover what 48 megapascals (7000 psi) feels like. That's a harder bite than a Great White Shark or a Crocodile, so they can cause a lot of damage if they're scared. Their claws are also razor sharp, so letting them be wild and observing them from a distance is the sensible thing to do. So, why am I not being sensible here?...

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In this case, these squirrels are eating peanuts from bird feeders in a park. Giving them something that's more healthy for them, while also allowing the birds better access to their own food helps everyone involved... and I get some photos out of it. Squirrels sitting in your hand (above) is not very common in wild reds. We don't entourage this, this one in particular is just comfortable climbing us and I don't have the heart to stop her. She is the only one of ten in this area that is remotely this happy around people, so don't be disappointed if your squirrels don't get so close. That is normal and it's much safer for them if they don't trust people so much.

Vocalization

The original plan for this video was to show the heat created by a hazelnut being gnawed to destruction. It works for that, but we were also lucky to capture some extreme squeaking vocalization, which was not unique to this squirrel. Several of them were doing it for a few days. This was either related to the cold and close proximity of so many squirrels (around 10) or mating season.

Ticks

Squirrels can get quite effected by ticks in the warmer months (April to October). They often attach around their eyes and ears (where they can't be easily removed) as they shove their faces into places looking for food. Ticks here in Sweden can carry the TBE virus as well as Lyme Disease. Only the former can be vaccinated against, so I recommend researching about your area and seeing what you can do to avoid them... and getting your shots. It's not cheap in most countries, but I prefer that to dying in a pretty horrifying way.

 

Seasons

Spring is your best chance to see baby squirrels (April-May) although they can be born at any time of the year. Red squirrels can have one to three litters per year, with three to five kits being born per time. Baby squirrels are born naked, but by the time they emerge from the drey (nest) they'll be complete with tufted ears. Unfortunately the spring batch also coincides with ticks waking up, so you might see them with a few (see above).

As spring progresses toward summer adult red squirrel's winter coat starts to moult and those beautiful tufted ears usually disappear for a few months. This can mean they look a bit rough for a while, but their coat will settle into a more uniformly short and deeper red colour. Sometimes this can take a bit of fur with it, but don't be too concerned that it's health related. You might find your squirrels disappearing this time of year due to an abundance of food in the tree-tops, they will likely be quite happy up there where it's safer. 

Transitioning from summer to Autumn is a quiet time for squirrel photography. They still have much to eat up in the tree canopies, mostly out of camera range. The change happens quickly this far north however. As the daylight hours diminish their winter coat will start to grow back. We saw the first tufty hairs starting to emerge from the 1st of September. The temperature remained very warm for about another month, so their winter coat is more likely to be triggered by light rather than temperatures. After only a week or two of the trees looking stunning, things turn empty, grey, dull, damp and depressing here, but on the up side the squirrels have gotten their tufts back by this point (see below).

With temperatures dropping below 0°c (32°f), the red squirrel's will appreciate their winter coat, which will get progressively thicker and more silvery grey. Their ears will come back up to full tufty strength around February. Since tree dwelling rodents don't hibernate they will be looking for more help with food as they get further into the winter months. They will be looking for the food they stashed, but when that runs out this is the best time to trade photo opportunities for high protein bribes. 

Rescues

I was extremely lucky to meet four baby rescue squirrels in Norway this summer. They had lost their home and mother two days before these images were taken. Their tree was cut down by developers, but luckily they were unharmed (despite being scooped up by a digger). The 6-7 week old babies (kitswill be taken care of until they're old enough to be released. Their new home will be a remote forest with no cars, cats, dogs or people. A few weeks before being released they will be introduced to an older brother (who we named 'Conker'), to make sure they get along before they get free reign in nature. This should give them a much better chance...

This photo was taken just after they had been fed (every 3-5 hours at this point). They liked climbing me, so I put the camera down and Jens took this shot of me being used as a tree. They liked the traction their claws got on my t-shirt, but would also climb my head and hang under my arm. Since they weigh very little their claws did not make any marks on my skin, but this will change when they get a bit bigger and have more energy. They liked to sit on my back where I could not see or reach them. I wanted to grab them, but they seemed to like freedom and mischief a whole lot more.

 

When they were woken to eat, they were plucked from the layers of warm blankets, where they were curled up together (imagine the warmth). They were then stimulated with a wet-wipe, to encourage them to pee (like young kittens). They don't like this so squirm around trying to get away, so it helps to be firm with them. Click here to see my wife's video of the whole experience. The first couple of days they were very lethargic, but by this point (day 3) they were getting very active after being fed. You could see their energy levels grow exponentially over a short period. I'm so curious what they think about using their surrogate parents as a tree...

Photography Equipment

I prefer to seek out friendly squirrels and photograph them with standard portrait lenses (rather than typically massive wildlife telephotos). With squirrel's lightning speeds in dark conditions, combining these fast lenses with large, modern sensors increases your chances of getting a good photo (especially in dark Scandinavian winters), but that can make gear really big, heavy and expensive. However, there are some smart choices to be made if you're choosing new camera equipment from scratch. For example: You can get a Sony A9 for less than half the price of a Nikon D6 (2023) and it's a far better camera in general. The advantages it has over the newer DSLR are:

  • Silent shooting (+ low rolling shutter)

  • Blackout-Free Viewfinder (120fps)

  • More Advanced AF (& faster)

  • Higher Resolution (24mp)

  • Higher Burst Speeds (20fps)

  • Animal Eye-AF (& Tracking)

  • More AF points (>700%)

  • Larger Focus Area (>400%)

  • Better Low-Light (DxO)

  • Longer buffer (20fps @ 12s)

  • Image Stabilization (5 stops)

  • Tilting Rear Screen (1.4m dot)

  • Lower Shutter Lag (More responsive)

  • Higher Shutter Speeds (1/32,000th)

  • Much Lighter (Less than half)

  • Much Smaller (shown here, to scale)

  • Much Cheaper (~1/3)

 

Most of the images you see below are taken with the A9 (2017). I recently upgraded to the Sony A1 (2021), which is lovely, but largely overkill (you can see my review of it here if you're curious). DSLRs have not been able to compete with mirrorless on the high end since the Sony A9. This was the camera that scared Canon and Nikon so much that they entirely abandoned DSLRs just a few years later. Now that the A9 has been superseded twice, it's one of the best camera bargains around IMO and many of its lenses are cheaper than Canon & Nikon alternatives (like the 135mm f/1.8 that I used to take most of these images).

Cheaper Cameras

Don't let expensive gear put you off. You can achieve surprisingly impressive results on a budget. I have a page specifically about photographing squirrels here, but my favourite bargain was a €150 Samsung NX500. OK, with the lens that I used to shoot the squirrels that's €500 in total, but that gives you amazing quality results, an auto focus lens and silent shooting for 1/20th the cost of a new Sony A1 (and its lens)! It's worth remembering that the most important aspect is to first find friendly squirrels. After that you can focus on how much you can afford for camera equipment.

Video

I have started to shoot more video of squirrels, but I have a lot to learn. The Sony A9 was not the greatest video camera, but it allowed me to shoot this slow motion clip. Now that I have a better video camera I can shoot these videos in 4k resolution, 100/120fps frame-rates, 10-bit, 4:2:2 colours, much better bit-rates and decent colour profiles too.

IMAGES

Here are some of my favourite squirrel images I have taken over the last two years. The first two image are from the beginning of a squirrel trail in the Botanical gardens, in Göteborg. Funnily enough this is where we found our first red squirrel (without knowing about the trail), but none of the other images are from the trail. I won't share the other locations to protect the squirrels. You can find more images like this on my Instagram account here.