A UK Perspective
In the UK's south west (where I grew up), red squirrels haven't been around for more than two decades before I was born. When grey squirrels were introduced from North America, by idiotic aristocrats in 1876, they brought a deadly virus which doomed more than 3 million of the native species to a slow and painful death. Now they are all but gone from entire country.
Red and grey squirrel distribution - Craig Shuttleworth/RSST ©
Grey squirrels were also introduced to Northern Italy in the 1950's, thus the red squirrel is at risk across all of mainland Europe now too. The UK's situation is a bleak example of what can happen if you don't do enough to protect your native wildlife from invasive species. Apart from being huge, hungry, plague carriers the Eastern Grey squirrel's also do a lot more damage to trees. Stripping bark that weakens entire areas of forest. Conservationists have many reasons to want grey squirrels eradicated from the continent, but we can only hope that whatever course of action is chosen doesn't cause more suffering and/or damage in the process.
My first grey squirrel photo: Fuji S2 Pro (UK - Midlands, 2002)
Although there are still a few red squirrels left in the UK (mostly small islands) the numbers are extremely low! Less than 160,000, down from 3.5 million. I didn't see a red squirrel in the furry flesh until I was in my 30's & didn't get close to one until my 40's. When I was young these were mythical creatures that you would only see on TV or movies, but then a few years ago... I got a job offer from Sweden...
Red squirrels are abundant in Sweden, but unlike London greys they aren't frantically climbing people for pizza & chips. Here, you'll be lucky to see one occasionally jumping through the tree tops. If you're not actively looking for them you might never see one. They often disappear into the canopies at the first little sound, so a big lens is usually needed to capture a few red blurry pixels. Thankfully that eventually changed for me and I managed to find some friendly specimens here and there...
Grey vs Red
Grey squirrels (Eastern Greys) are similar in appearance and mannerisms to their European cousins. Both are tree dwelling, nut obsessed rodents 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 store fat for the winter 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).
Telling reds and greys apart on fur colouration alone can be tricky. 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.
The most obvious difference between greys and reds are those stunning tufted ears. This is part of their winter coat, the extra growth extends their tail and the fur on their back. It grows from early Autumn and usually malts away in the spring. Apart from the ears looking adorable and keeping them warm, they contain a pretty striped pattern. The extra motion adds to their personality. Aesthetically this balances out the squirrel design and helps to differentiate them from other rodents, like a rats or chipmunks etc.
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. Pine cones, seeds, mushrooms, fruit, flowers and more. In winter they will hunt down higher sources of protein, which is where nuts come in. Hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans and almonds are all good. Anything with a shell will help to keep their teeth in check (which never stop growing) 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 can be ok as a treat in small quantities.
NOTE: I see a lot of conflicting information about peanuts for feeding 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 know which things are bad for them, so don't assume that because they eat it that it's good for them. Foods we give to squirrels are often things they wouldn't normally have access to, so they won't naturally dislike it. It's up to us to be careful what we feed them, please do your research before feeding them. Just like us squirrels can be drawn to junk food. Bread, processed or salty foods are really bad for them.
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 afar 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 too 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.
Seeing baby squirrels this time of year is magical, if you can find them. Red squirrels can have two litters per year, the main one being born in early spring, but also in early autumn. Baby squirrels are born naked, but by the time they emerge from the drey they'll be complete with tufty ears, ready for winter (even in Spring). Unfortunately the spring batch also coincides with tics waking up, so you might see them infested with those as spring progresses. Tics here in Sweden can carry the TBE virus, so if you're out in the forest this time of year I recommend checking if it's a problem in your area and getting your shots if it is. Wearing shorts is also not a good idea.
As spring progresses toward summer adult red squirrel's winter coat starts to malt and those beautiful tufty ears usually disappear for a few months. This can mean they look a bit rough for a while, but it will settle into a more uniformly short and deeper red colour. Sometimes the malt 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. Since they have so much food still available up in the trees, out of camera range. After only a week or two of the trees looking colourful here everything starts to look empty, grey, dull, damp and depressing. However, this is still squirrel harvest time for another month or so. They will be desperately burying all the nuts they can find before the frost sets in. As the temperature drops their tufty ears will start to grow back.
With temperatures dropping below 0°c (32°f), the red squirrel's coat will get progressively more silvery grey. Their ears will come back up to full tufty strength. Since tree dwelling rodents don't hibernate they will be looking for more help with food. The further into winter they get the more they will be looking for the food they stashed. This is a great time to trade photo opportunities for high protein snacks.
I Initially struggled to get close to squirrels here. Even with a long focal length lens they were tricky to photograph, but after finding these friendly squirrels I had the opposite problem. Having squirrels stand next to (or on) you is lovely and maybe ok for a smart phone, but it can be very tricky with a proper camera. 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 if you're happy being super close to them.
Squirrels tend to favour secluded places (since they feel safe) with lots of trees and foliage Thus avoiding noise and/or blur with schizo fluffy tailed tree-rats in dark conditions can be a real challenge! Trying this in the winter can be better, due to less foliage letting in more light, but here in the north (57°) that also means a lot less sunlight hours and less reliable weather too. If you're like me and want to do some photography before work this can be a huge challenge and you might be stuck using busier weekend times.
I ended settling on the below kit, which I was luckily to find for a very reasonable price second hand (separately). This Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM lens is an extremely sharp lens, even wide open. The focus tracking speed and low light capability in combination with the Sony A9 is extremely impressive, capable of shooting 20 frames per second, for a full 12 seconds, should you feel the need. Although 5 years old now, it performs better than any pro DSLR, while weighing considerably less and being completely silent (a great feature for wildlife photography). Click the picture below to read my full review.
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.
I have started to shoot more video of squirrels, mostly because I can. 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.
Here are some more images of the red squirrels from Göteborg, Sweden. Any of the images you see taken with the Sony 200-600mm lens below are more wild ones that are taken in the forests, rather than the friendly ones taken in various parks.