Is That a Chipmunk or a Ground Squirrel? – Guest Blog

Guest Blog by Judy Martin, Think Wild Volunteer

Have you ever seen one of these small rodents scurrying near your picnic site or along a trail? You may wonder whether you are looking at a chipmunk or a ground squirrel. You are not alone. They can look very similar, so let’s look at some of the similarities and differences.  

Chipmunk (left) vs. Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (right)

Ground squirrels are small mammals that generally live on the ground or in burrows. All chipmunks are ground squirrels, but not all ground squirrels are chipmunks. Chipmunks (above left) are the smallest members of the squirrel family. They both have short fur and small, rounded ears. An obvious distinction is that a chipmunk has stripes from head to tail, while the golden-mantled ground squirrel (above right) has body stripes similar to a chipmunk, but no head stripes. Also note the white eye-ring on the ground squirrel.  

Size – Sources vary as to the size range for chipmunks and ground squirrels, but agree that ground squirrels are larger than chipmunks on average. Generally, Chipmunks range up to 10 inches in total length (including tail) and weigh up to 10 ounces, while Golden-mantled ground squirrels are roughly double in size.  

Habitat – Chipmunks are frequently seen along the edges of wooded areas and in yards with plenty of trees and shrubs. They are more solitary and territorial, building complex tunnel systems. The chipmunk’s small size makes it easy to navigate its burrows quickly. When frightened, chipmunks generally retreat to their underground burrows.  

Ground squirrels are more likely to be seen in rocky outcrops, sparsely wooded hillsides, fields, pastures, meadows and rural parks. They also build burrows, but are more social and may live in colonies within shared tunnels. Unlike chipmunks, ground squirrels can navigate more quickly above ground, but may stand their ground when frightened.  

Hibernation – Animals hibernate to keep warm and conserve energy during harsh winter months when water and food are scarce. During hibernation, an animal’s bodily functions slow down significantly, including heart rate, breathing rate and metabolic activities. During winter, chipmunks hibernate, but rouse themselves every few days to feed on food supplies stored in their burrows. Ground squirrels also hibernate in winter, but may forage above ground on warmer days.  

Diet – Chipmunks and ground squirrels live a very food focused life, revolving around finding food, eating food, finding more food and storing food. Both are voracious omnivores, feeding on nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies and insects. 

Predators – Due to their small size, chipmunks and ground squirrels have many predators, including owls, hawks, weasels, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, lynxes, cats, dogs, snakes, and sometimes even their own squirrel cousins.

What about Tree Squirrels?

That bushy-tailed tree squirrel robbing your bird-feeder is a larger “cousin” of chipmunks and ground squirrels. All are part of a large family of small and medium-sized rodents called Sciuridae, which includes 280 species of tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs and flying squirrels.  

Tree squirrels are up to 15 inches in body length plus a prominent bushy tail of up to 14 inches. They have short, thick fur in various colors, ranging from white to gray, red and brown. 

Tree squirrels get their name from their habitat – they are found in wooded and urban areas with trees, particularly oak and hickory. They harvest food from trees, such as acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, as well as seeds, fruits and fungi. Tree squirrels can also live quite well in urban parks and suburban backyards, where bird feeders, gardens and human waste supply much of their diet. During summer months, they nest in tree cavities or nests made of leaves in branch crotches. Tree squirrels don’t hibernate during winter like chipmunks or squirrels, and will hunker down in tree cavities, but are also known to invade homes and other structures to keep warm.

Some Squirrelly Facts:

  •       There are 25 species of chipmunks and 44 species of flying squirrels.
  •       Squirrels are blind, hairless and helpless at birth. They rely on their mothers for care and guidance for nearly 6-12 weeks before venturing out on their own.
  •       Squirrels’ front teeth never stop growing. They need to gnaw on nuts and other objects to keep their teeth in check. Unfortunately, that sometimes includes cables on buildings and cars.
  •       When faced with a predator, squirrels will pursue an erratic zigzag path, forcing their predator to make tight turns, which may prevent capture.
  •       Squirrels – the acrobats of the animal kingdom – are helping scientists develop more agile smart robots through studies of their balance and movement. 
  •       Squirrels can locate buried food treasures under nearly a foot of snow, thanks to their powerful noses.
  •       Chipmunks need 15 hours of sleep per day.
  •       One chipmunk can gather 165 acorns in a day. They can collect enough food to last an entire winter in just two days, but typically hoard much more food than necessary. 
  •       Chipmunks have cheek pouches that can expand to 3 times the size of their heads.
  •       Chipmunks are named for the “chip-chip” sound they make called chipping.
  •       Chipmunks are the smallest members of their squirrel family. 
  •       A group of chipmunks is known as a scurry.  
  •       The most common members of the squirrel family in Central Oregon are Western gray squirrels, Douglas squirrels, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, Yellow Pine chipmunks and Least chipmunks.