Grey Squirrels are definitely underappreciated in the UK. It’s true that they’re a damaging invasive species that should never have been introduced from North America, and Grey Squirrels have done a pretty good job of extirpating the native Red Squirrels from much of the country.
But for better or worse, Grey Squirrels are here to stay, so we might as well make the most of them. And while the Reds might be a bit cuter, Grey Squirrels are hardly unattractive.
Go to any city park in the country and you’re likely to find a healthy population of well-fed squirrels. They’re all still perfectly capable of behaving naturally and foraging for nuts, seeds, tree bark, mushrooms and other traditional foods, but most urban squirrels also take advantage of the doting humans who provide a never-ending supply of treats.
In rare cases when food is very scarce, Grey Squirrels may take insects and, more occasionally, frogs and small mammals. At their most extreme, the species has even been known to cannibalise. And suddenly they don’t seem quite so cute… Fortunately for the squirrels, resorting to eating their own is never necessary when people are around.
Many individuals become so accustomed to being fed by people that they essentially lose all fear of humans. This could of course have negative consequences for some species, but squirrels seem to be perfectly adapted to exploit this urban niche. In this sense, the disparaging ‘tree rat’ moniker is actually pretty accurate.
The squirrels I spent a while photographing were all in various parks around Bristol, where a quick rustle of a bag is often enough to bring the rodents running. Many squirrels are happy to be hand-fed (guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone’s face), and a few of the boldest individuals will even climb up your clothes if they think you’re taking too long! This is great if you’re prepared, but if they jump on you from behind when you have no idea they’re there, those sharp little claws can be pretty alarming!
Grey Squirrels are certainly endearing, but looks and personality aside, they’re fascinating creatures in their own right. Very few mammals are able to descend trees headfirst, but Grey Squirrels do it with ease. Evolution has provided them with incredibly versatile hind feet that can rotate until the paws point backwards, allowing their back claws to cling onto the bark.
Even more interestingly, Grey Squirrels are extremely intelligent animals, especially considering their small size. They demonstrate phenomenal spatial memory by caching food in times of abundance and digging it up again weeks or even months later.
Squirrels have a mental database of all their cache sites and can locate them to within a few inches, when their sense of smell should be able to take over. This is even more impressive when you realise that by the start of winter, some Grey Squirrels will have a precise mental map covering several thousand caches.
Most impressive of all, these squirrels sometimes show signs of a much higher level of thinking. If a competitor (another squirrel for example) is nearby, then a Grey Squirrel may try to fool the onlooker by pretending to cache a nut or other treat, before moving on to hide it in a more secret spot, away from prying eyes. This level of forward planning is truly remarkable for a rodent with a brain the size of a walnut.
One area in which Grey Squirrels do seem to struggle is their sense of smell. It’s supposed to be quite good, so perhaps the ones I’ve watched are just letting down the species. You can throw a nut right in front of them, but they’ll still snuffle around searching for it all over the place before they finally get there.
They hardly seem to be following a scent trail either – their eyes only gleam with discovery when they bump their inadequate little noses straight into the treat and realise it’s edible. I guess this means Bristolian squirrels aren’t to be commended for their eyesight either.
Having such confiding subjects is a rare treat in wildlife photography, offering the prospect of a whole new suite of images that you’d never manage to get otherwise. Close up macro shots require your subject to come extremely close, something that squirrels are unfortunately a little less willing to do when you’re sticking a camera in their face. But they quickly realise you’re not a threat, and they’re so used to people that they’re not too bothered whatever you do.
Close proximity also provides an opportunity for wide angle shots, where the squirrel is large in the frame but you can see a good chunk of its surroundings as well. These are great fun to take, with animals running around within stroking distance. Not that they’ll let you stroke their tails, I’ve tried…
One morning, a Grey Squirrel took such an interest in my camera that he came close enough that even his tiny little lungs were able to mist up my lens.
The most challenging photo for this mini-project was one that took three separate visits. I wanted to backlight a squirrel with a flash to highlight its outline and emphasise the big bushy tail. I also wanted it to be in the rain so that the falling drops would add some interest to the rest of the photo.
It turns out that – being the sensible creatures they are – squirrels aren’t stupid enough to come out when it’s chucking it down. So while they were tucked away somewhere warm, dry and cosy, I got soaked wandering around in the pouring rain for nothing. Wonderful. Still, I seized my chance one drizzly day, and sure enough, the squirrels were out in force! Enticing one up onto a park bench wasn’t too difficult, and then it was just a question of waiting for him to strike a pose and firing the shutter.
The huge variety of shots you can get and the amount of interesting behaviour you can observe when you work with a single species for a long time is amazing. It’s proof that you don’t have to travel far for wonderful wildlife experiences, and that with a little creativity, commonly overlooked animals can make for great photographs.
There are even more(!) squirrel photos in my dedicated gallery here. And if you’d like to find out about some more urban wildlife in Bristol, take a look at my posts on Urban Foxes and Urban Peregrines.
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