A UK Perspective
Where I grew up, in the UK's south west, red squirrels were wiped out more than a generation before I was born. Grey squirrels were introduced from North America, by idiotic aristocrats in 1876. They were carriers of a deadly virus which doomed the native species to a slow and painful death. Now they are all but gone from the whole country. A stark lesson concerning invasive species.
Red and Grey UK squirrel distribution - Craig Shuttleworth/RSST ©
Red squirrels have been eradicated from so much of the country around where I lived that I didn't see a red squirrel until I was in my 30's & didn't get close to one until my 40's. Grey squirrels shouldn't be there, but they are and it's not their fault so please don't hate them! They are more friendly, although that's mostly because they get fed in city parks. This photo was taken on my first DSLR back in 2002. Years later I moved to London and found lots of friendly ones that loved posing for photographs... and getting fed of course.
Leamington Spa, UK - 2002 - Fuji S2 Pro
Then, in 2016, I moved to Sweden... Red squirrels are abundant here in Scandinavia and are thankfully far away from any invasive Greys. You won't find friendly ones in every city park here, like Greys in London. Seeing the occasionally Red jumping through the tree tops can be a nice surprise. They often disappear into the canopies at the first little sound, so even having a big lens can be a frustrating photographic experience. After a few years I managed to find some friendly ones...
Grey vs Red
Grey squirrels (Eastern Greys) are similar in appearance and mannerisms to their European cousins. Both are nut obsessed fluffy tailed tree rats that do not hibernate, but apart from the grey's disease and destruction, there are few other aspects that set them apart. Firstly, they're physically bigger (weighing up to twice as much). Some of this is due to size, the rest is because grey squirrels can store body fat. You've probably seen a meme of a fat squirrel. Eurasian red squirrels cannot do this and this is why they grow an extra thick winter coat to cope with the cold. Red's aren't exactly fussy eaters, but greys eat everything reds do and much more, so they can also starve them out of areas they're introduced to (although the virus is more likely to kill them).
Although this is only needed in parts of Northern Italy currently, telling Reds and Greys apart can be trickier than you might think. Greys can be kind of red and reds can be quite grey, although the latter is due to their winter coat, which the greys don't have. Greys tend to have a bright halo around their tail, but variety in reds and malting can still lead to confusion. Miss-identification of greys in Europe is growing, which many are understandably concerned about. There has been a scare in Germany for example, but this was a case of mistaken identifiation.
The most obvious difference between greys and reds are those stunning tufted ears. This is part of their winter coat, which also extends their tail and fur on their back. It grows from early Autumn and moults away by the summer. Apart from the ears looking adorable and keeping them warm, they also contain a pretty striped pattern. Aesthetically this balances out the squirrel design nicely and is why we find them so cute. It helps to differentiate them from other rodents, like rats or chipmunks, but also Grey squirrels.
Colouration between red squirrels can vary significantly, but it also changes a lot due to the winter coat. The two males above are from the same local area (in Göteborg Sweden) and at the same time of year. Their ears, arms, feet and tail usually retain their year-round colour, which ranges from pale red to almost black. As the main fur coat on their back gets thicker when the temperature drops, it also gets more silvery grey. In the summer they will malt down to a deeper, more uniform red colour and usually lose the tufty ears.
Northern European reds seem to have darker claws, whiskers and skin than their southern counterparts. In the area around Southern Germany some have very dark brown fur. In Japan they generally have a neutral grey coat (no colour or variation). From Eastern Europe to Asian (in colder climates) they seem to have a more pale grey fur colour and brighter extensions. Apart from the tufted ears, another element that remains consistent is the almost white underbelly fur.
After editing a few hundred squirrel photos I noticed a strangely long hair on their forearms. My guess is this acts like another whisker. Communicating proximity to objects they might not be able to see. Helping them to squeeze into small spaces without getting stuck. This might also be because they don't have good close vision and some angles getting blocked by the shape of their skull.
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 and not having a claw, these digits aren't used for climbing. They might appear to be a bit pointless (no pun intended), but in fact they get a lot of use when eating. They appear to not touch the ground when walking, so perhaps this keeps them cleaner for use with food.
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). Despite their huge eyes, they mostly rely on a sense of sound, smell and touch, seemingly not having great vision, at least close up. 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.
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, as even animal specialists love to anthropomorphize. Take the frantic side-to-side tail wagging for example. This is linked to pretty much every emotion you can think of, which is obviously not possible. Some of these guesses are more educated than others, but much is labelled as fact by people who should clearly know better.
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.
In a natural habitat squirrels can eat all sorts of things. Seeds, nuts, mushrooms, fruit, flowers and more... occasionally birds eggs, but let's not talk about that. In winter they will hunt down higher sources of protein, which is where nuts really come in. Hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans and almonds are all good. Anything with a shell will help to keep their teeth in check with gnawing. Peanuts don't contain much nutrients for squirrels, so it is not recommended to be their main food source (especially in winter). Raw peanuts can contain a toxic fungus that's fatal to squirrels so it's safer to avoid peanuts entirely. Brazil nuts are also problematic in any quantity, but can be ok as a rare treat.
NOTE: I see a lot of conflicting information about feeding peanuts to squirrels. I took my info 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.
Squirrels won't naturally know which things are bad for them, so don't assume that because they eat and seem to like it that it's good for them. Squirrels won't naturally dislike foods they don't normally have access to, so 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. 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.
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 an angry bite from a scared squirrel you'll know what 48 megapascals (or 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! Letting them be wild and observing them from a distance is the sensible thing to do. So, why am I not being sensible here?...
In this case, these squirrels are eating peanuts from bird feeders. 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.
If you just want your squirrels to stay still for a photo I recommend leaving a pile of smaller foods somewhere raised off the ground. Break up their food into smaller chunks, or using things like sunflower seeds. Large food (shelled hazelnut or walnut) will likely trigger them into running away to bury it. It will make them super excited, but they won't sit still for photos.
Although rare to see, finding baby squirrels this time of year can be pretty magical (April-May). Red squirrels can have two, or even sometimes three litters per year, the main one being born in early spring, then again in early autumn. 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 a little infested (especially around their eyes) as spring progresses into summer (click to zoom the below image at your peril). Ticks here in Sweden can carry the TBE virus as well as Lyme Disease. so I recommend researching about your area and what you can do to avoid these things before chasing squirrels around the forest this time of year.
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 a 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. After only a week or two of the trees looking colourful, everything starts to look empty, grey, dull, damp and depressing. However, this is still squirrel harvest time for another few weeks. They will be desperately storing, burying and reburying all their nuts before the frost sets in. As the daylight gets shorter their winter coat will start to grow back (we saw the first signs on the 1st of September, in 2023) and tufted ears will begin to emerge.
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.
I was extremely lucky to meet four baby rescue squirrels through friends in Norway this summer. They had lost their drey and mother two days before, when their tree was cut down by developers. luckily they were unharmed, even though their tree was collected by a digger, but their mother was not found, so hopefully she ran to safety. The kits will be released into a forest with no cars, cats, dogs or people once they are strong enough. Thus they will have a much better chance from now on...
This photo was taken just after they had been fed (which happened 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 playground. They liked the traction they 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 even making marks on my skin, although this will change when they get a bit bigger and have more energy. It was so much fun playing with them!
When they are awoken from their sleep, they were plucked from the layers of blankets to be stimulated with a wet-wipe, to encourage them to pee, rather like young kittens (see below). They don't like this so squirm around trying to get away, it helps to be firm with them. Despite this I still got peed on quite a bit when they were on my back.
I try to seek out friendly squirrels and use smaller portrait lenses, rather than typically massive wildlife telephotos. With squirrel's fast movement, usually in quite dark places, a combination fast lenses and larger camera sensors will increase your chances at attaining good image quality. That can make gear a little big and heavy, but there are ways to keep that to a minimum. I changed from a pro DSLR to Sony mirrorless (A9) which cut my camera weight in half while enabling me to silently take more better quality images. Although the lenses haven't gotten much smaller or lighter, their AF speed / accuracy and image quality have improved quite a lot.
Most of the images you see here are taken with the Sony A9 (2017), which is an amazing second hand bargain today! Then I recently upgraded to the A1 (2021), which has stunning speed, video and resolution in by far the smallest pro mirrorless body today.
Don't let expensive gear put you off. You can achieve surprisingly good results on a budget. Check out these images from my cheap camera challenge page. The most important element here is finding friendly squirrels. After that it's your choice of lens. The camera is mostly important because what it allows your lens to do, although dynamic range gets better on newer gear there has been a stagnation in that regard for the last 15 years. The rest is down to your talent and determination.
I have started to shoot more video of squirrels, but I have a lot to learn so am not very comfortable with this yet. The Sony A9 is not the greatest video camera, but it does work and allowed me to shoot slow motion (1080p) for the clip below. I really like slow-mo video for squirrels and now that I have the Sony A1 I can get slo-mo clips in 4k, with 4:2:2, 10bit, colours, with profiles and focus tracking.
Here are some Instagram images (planned, not necessarily uploaded). I'm currently considering making these into a book...