Red Squirrels

A UK Perspective

I grew up in England where red squirrels used to be the native species. Unfortunately they were killed off by the parapox virus, which came with the Eastern Grey squirrels, introduced from North America in the 19th century. I didn't see a red squirrel until my 30's and didn't get close to one until my 40's, so saw them as a rare and rather magical creature for most of my life.

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

The above image was taken when I bought my first digital SLR (Fuji S2 Pro). Although a small fraction of red squirrels can still be found on remote islands, or far up north; For most people in England & Wales, this is what a squirrel looks like. A larger, mostly grey, fluffy-tailed rodent, with a brown head and cream underbelly. On the plus side; They're usually more friendly, especially in cities.

Eurasian Red

After moving to Sweden a few years ago I became more interested in wildlife. There is a lot of nature here and many animals just seem more chilled out here. Blue tits (Blåmes) come into my bedroom window while I'm working (see here) for example. Although I struggled for a long time to get close to Swedish squirrels, 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.

Arm 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

Squirrel's double jointed ankles and sharp claws enable them to play fast and loose with gravity. With surprisingly human like arms gestures they appear extremely cute to many people. When stretched out (which you don't often see) their hands have large/deep pads and look freakishly long (almost like a werewolf).

 

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 squirrels is uncommon for wild animals. Although it varies depending on location I don't see an obvious difference between greys and reds here. Both can be difficult to befriend if they've never been on contact with people, but in some locations (either in a garden or a city park), where they get a lot of attention and it can seem easy. Even for us where we now have a couple of locations where the squirrels know they can get food from people it's not common to have them happily sit in your hand, like one we found does, that seems to be a bit more unusual.

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.

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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 an angry 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 our case, the squirrels are often eating peanuts from bird feeders (mentioned more below), so giving them something that's more healthy for them, while also allowing the birds better access to their own food could help all the animals here.

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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 for squirrels, so it not recommended to be their main food source (especially in winter). Raw peanuts can also contain a toxic fungus to squirrels so it's easier to avoid peanuts entirely. Brazil nuts are also not good for them. Squirrels won't know which of these nuts are bad for them, they're foods that they wouldn't normally have access to, so it's up to us to be careful what we feed them. Do your research before feeding them and don't assume it's good for them because they like 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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Handling

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. If you find them vacuuming up the pieces to run away and bury they're most likely not hungry.

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Spring

This year was our first time observing baby squirrels. A group of four baby squirrels in a mossy forest with flowers, which you'll see in the main gallery section below. The above image is in the original location however so I hope this is one of the the babies from the friendly squirrel we call Jen that you will see sat in our hands.

 

Red squirrels can have two litters per year, the main one being born in early spring and another in early autumn. Unfortunately the spring batch coincides with tics waking up, so you might see them infested with those as spring progresses. Tics here in Sweden can carry the TBE viral infectious disease, which you really don't want to get, so we have had our shots. I highly recommend checking your area to see if you need to do the same. 

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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Autumn - Winter

Transitioning from summer to Autumn is a quiet time for squirrel photography. Since they have so much food available to them through the summer they generally stay up in the trees and away from the camera. After only a week or two of the trees looking colourful here they're empty, grey, dull, damp and depressing, but this is harvest time for squirrels. They are desperately burying all the nuts they can find before winter sets in. This is when their tufty ears come back, if they fully disappeared during summer (which not always happens).

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Photography

Initially I struggled to get good photos, even with a big tele lens, but 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 a proper camera unless you have a macro 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 (since they feel safe) with lots of trees and foliage so getting enough light to photograph them is the biggest problem. 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, from 2017. With animal eye-AF, advanced tracking, fully silent shooting and no rolling shutter issues I have the best chance of getting high quality images. To further help here I use the fastest lenses I can find.

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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, in the trees, I use a 200-600mm which is great, but the f/6.3 max aperture is not really ideal for fast moving subjects. I recently also added the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM lens, which enables me to get a bit closer than the Sigma 85mm while also being better at a distance, for only a slight 2/3 of a stop light loss.

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.