Red squirrels are the native squirrels of Europe. In Britain and in western Europe, a red squirrel is eye-catchingly red. There is no doubt when one has seen a red squirrel in Britain. The red squirrels of Eastern Europe and Russia, however, may be gray or even black, even though it is the same species. And there are different species of much smaller red tree squirrels in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and British Columbia.
How to Recognize Red Squirrels
Red squirrels are tree squirrels, feeding on conifer seeds and nuts, although not acorns. They most commonly have red fur on their backs and creamy white fur on their bellies. Their hair is shed twice a year to grow a lighter coat for summer or a heavier coat for winter. Tufts of hair appear on the ears in late summer as the squirrel’s winter coat comes in. Squirrels of this species are smaller than competing gray squirrels, just 34 to 43 cm (13 to 17 inches) from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, and weighing just 250 to 340 grams (9 to 12 ounces) as adults.
The common red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, is native to Britain, Europe, and Russia, all the way from Ireland and eastern Spain through Europe and Russia to Korea and the island of Hokkaido in Japan. Colonies of red squirrels in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Asia, have developed genetics that give individual squirrels a variety of hair colors similar to the variety of hair colors in people.
Red squirrels can swim. They have curved claws that enable them to climb broad tree trunks. Unlike the larger imported gray squirrels that compete with them for habitat, they are solitary and reluctant to share food. Like gray squirrels, they store caches of food, but unlike gray squirrels, they have poor spatial memories. They search for stored food at random locations, spending energy searching for food in cold weather and exposing themselves to predators.
Red squirrels are also protected squirrels, both the common red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris click here to see a picture) in Europe and the red squirrels of British Columbia, on the Pacific coast to Canada.
Declining Numbers of Red Squirrels
Red squirrels are not yet an endangered species, but in many places in the UK they are being wiped out by infections they catch from gray squirrels that were introduced from North America. Gray squirrels and red squirrels alike are vulnerable to a viral disease known as squirrelpox. This skin infection is caused by a virus that is similar to the viruses that cause cowpox, chickenpox, and smallpox.
Squirrels that catch this virus develop high fevers and blisters underneath their fur. Just like most humans who are well fed and protected from the elements survive chickenpox (and even smallpox), most squirrels who live indoors and have a nearby supply of food and water survive squirrelpox. Squirrels living in trees exposed to winter winds and forced for forage for food under the snow, however, usually die from the illness.
Red squirrels are about half the size of gray squirrels. They have less body fat to sustain them when they are sick, and they do not have access to food gathered by other red squirrels. Since it is easier for gray squirrels to find enough food to stave off starvation while they are sick, gray squirrels are much more likely to survive the pox. In many parts of Europe, squirrelpox is wiping out the native red squirrel population while the imported gray squirrels overrun the landscape.
To preserve the red squirrel, almost all countries in Europe have made them a protected species under the Bern Convention. This means that in most of Europe one cannot shoot a red squirrel, poison a red squirrel, or trap a red squirrel. In many jurisdictions, one cannot even relocate red squirrels off your property. And in all of Britain, according to the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, there are only about 140,000 surviving red squirrels, about 120,000 of them in Scotland. That is the reason that for homeowners in the United Kingdom, red squirrels seldom cause problems.
Red Squirrels in North America
The red squirrel in North America is a different species, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus. It is also known as a pine squirrel or chickaree. Like European red squirrels, North American red squirrels are territorial. They do not share their food supplies with other squirrels. Unlike European red squirrels, North American red squirrels are not endangered. Mother squirrels maintain multiple nests and move their pups from nest to nest. On rare occasions, a mother squirrel will build one of her nests in an attic.
Most of the states of the United States and provinces of Canada where red squirrels range permit homeowners to kill red squirrels with traps—but killing squirrels is not necessary (and if you do not locate all the baby squirrels of a dead mother squirrel and remove them by hand, you may have to deal with a significant odor problem after they die of thirst or starvation and their bodies decay).
It is usually easiest just to wait the squirrels out. Approximately 70 days after birth, baby squirrels leave the nest for good. About this time it is a good idea to install a squirrel repeller or a one-way door known as a check valve at the point squirrels enter and exit the attic. One by one the squirrels depart, never to return. Then the check valve can be removed to exclude the squirrels permanently. You can find out more about how to get rid of squirrels here.