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Squirrels

Squirrels are a rather skittish, mostly solitary and highly territorial animal that can paradoxically display a surprising trust in humans (even when they shouldn't). 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 interact with.

My UK Perspective

Some of my fascination with Red squirrels stems from their mythical status when I was growing up. I only heard stories about and saw images of them until my mid-30's. Over the last 150 years over 99% of red squirrels have been wiped out in the UK. It's impossible to talk about the UK's red squirrel problem without talking about Grey squirrels, but I have some opinions on that in the next paragraph.

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Red and Grey UK squirrel distributionCraig Shuttleworth/RSST ©

Reds vs Greys

Most of the Red squirrel's decline get's blamed on the introduction of the Eastern Grey squirrel (from North American), in the late 19th century, but that ignores a lot of history. While Greys being carriers of a virus (that is deadly to Reds) is a factor, it's also a convenient scapegoat to deflect from past deforestation and culling while legitimizing the continued cruelty of animals. Did you know that there is already a vaccine for this virus? It's just more cost effective for the government to allow culling rather than administering the vaccine.

 

Both Red and Grey squirrels are stunning animals that have both been demonized throughout history. Not long before this "problem" existed, red squirrels were hunted nearly to extinction. Originally for their pelts and fur, but more recently because they "apparently" destroyed trees. Something that Grey squirrels are now blamed for doing. Forests used to cover 80% of the UK and humans have whittled that down to less than 17%, but apparently it's squirrels that are the pest. The Red squirrels that have managed to survive (in the remnants of forests that we continue to destroy) are frequently killed by our pets and cars too, but that rarely gets brought up either.

 

Squirrels have been living in harmony with the forests for 34 million years (a hundred times longer than we have been around). If they knew what we had done to this world and their kind they would never forgive us. I can only recommend not condoning the culling of any wild animal. Certainly not without knowing every nuance surrounding it. These programs are never "humane"

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Leamington Spa, UK (2002)

When the native UK squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris leucourus) population got dangerously low, attempts were made to bolster numbers by bringing in thousands of red squirrels from Scandinavia (Sciurus vulgaris vulgaris). Thus a majority of the remaining UK Red squirrels are now yet another animal, albeit more closely related. The "leucourus" sub-species can be identified by their blonde tail colour. These remaining native Reds are known to be found in the South West of Scotland, the Isle of Wight & Brownsea Island.

 

Identification between the Red & Grey squirrels is only really needed in the UK and parts of Northern Italy. Even if it wasn't for the 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 have some reddish brown colouration and Red's winter coat is quite grey.  The easiest way to tell them apart is their tail. Grey's have a white tip to their tail fur, giving it a bright halo (see above), whereas a Red's tail ends in a mid to dark red colour, although most are not as colourful as this one.

Sweden

Up to 2016 I only saw and photographed Grey squirrels. As lovely as they are, I moved to Göteborg later that year and soon became obsessed with red squirrels. The Swedish Red (Sciurus Vulgaris Vulgaris) is the only one you'll find here... wait... someone called these majestic creatures "shadow tail, common, common"? OMG that's a travesty! Anyway... I Initially only caught glimpses of them, but after a few more years I managed to find a few friendly specimens to photograph and study...

Winter Coat

The most obvious characteristic of Red squirrels are their huge tufted ears, which is part of their winter coat. This also makes the fur on their back thicker and more silvery grey, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot (below). At this latitude (58°), it moults away during the brightest three months of the year. On the image below you can see the winter coat coming off during Spring (mid April). They can transition from top to bottom like this, or it can be more patchy. Once fully moulted he will lose those wonderful tufted ears entirely and look more rodent-like than teddy bear.

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Colour & Variety

Hundreds of years ago, colour variation was used to identify 60+ subspecies of Eurasian Red squirrel, but after some more scientific research that number was whittled down to 23. The next images show some colour variation from the squirrels in Göteborg (Sweden), ranging from pale red (rare) to dark red (common). Their winter coat makes judging their colour more difficult because they have it most of the time and it can cover up their natural colours almost entirely. Their ears, legs and tail usually retain their summer colour.

NOTES: All of these images were taken during winter. Apart from their colours changing between summer and winter, their fur can also seem to change in appearance quite a lot depending on the lighting, camera settings (exposure) and moisture due to the fur's high reflectivity value.

 

The above images show the best cross section of colours from the Arosa squirrels that I could get in two days. The mostly melanistic (almost black) variants of the central European "fuscoater" subspecies of the Sciurus Vulgaris (Eurasian Red Squirrel) are likely due to the foliage (food & dwelling) at this altitude (~2000m). There are still a few very bright red ones here, as well as many mixed variants too. Down in the valleys their coats will transition to be mostly red (according to the Arosa tourism site). A few of the darker coloured ones here showed some leucistic (white) patches on their hands, which also affects the colour of their claws (see below).

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Another dark squirrel in southern Italy was recently elevated to full species status (Sciurus meridionalis / Calabrian Black Squirrel ). It was considered part of the "fuscoater" subspecies of Sciurus vulgaris until 2017. In Hokkaido (Sciurus vulgaris orientis) the squirrels have a slightly lighter grey coat, but the rest of Japan is only populated by Sciurus Lis, although it looks very similar.

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.

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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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. 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

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. The original plan for this video was to show the heat created by a hazelnut being gnawed to destruction. This also captured some extreme squeaking vocalization, which was likely related to the close proximity of so many squirrels (around 10) during 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 will 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 happens quite quickly this far north. 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 however, so their winter coat is more likely triggered by light rather than temperature. After only a week or two of the trees looking stunning, things turn empty, grey, dull, damp and depressing, but at least the squirrels have gotten their tufts back by this point (see above).

Decending into winter and the 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 by the new year. 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 search for the food they cached, 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 (6ms 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 €500 Samsung NX500 + Samsung 85mm lens. 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)! The best modest budget setup I can recommend for squirrels right now is either a second hand Sony A9 or a new Sony A7C II with the Samyang 135mm lens.

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 couple of years. One of these images is of a post with a squirrel symbol on it. This is the beginning of the squirrel trail in Göteborg's Botanical gardens. This is where we found our first red squirrel (without knowing about the trail), but none of the other images are from this trail area funnily enough. To protect the wildlife I don't want to share any other locations. If you're looking for some wildlife yourself the best advice I can give is simply to spend more time outside looking, you will find it. You can find more images like this on my Instagram account here.