The Difference Between Squirrels And Chipmunks

By Jeff Kelly on Monday, January 6, 2014
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“I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, ‘I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead.’ [laughs] It’s funny because the squirrel gets dead!” —Dug, Up (2009)

In A Nutshell

Chipmunks and squirrels, to most of us, would appear to be almost identical. In fact, there are no doubt some out there who think they are the same creature, and simply have two names. Kind of like how you can call a dog a “hound” and you’re not wrong. But while chipmunks and squirrels are similar, they are in fact two different species. Chipmunks are smaller and burrow underground to nest, while larger squirrels will live on the ground or in trees.

The Whole Bushel

Chipmunks and squirrels are nearly identical animals. In fact, if you walked outside and saw a little rodent scurrying around, picking up nuts, and driving dogs crazy, you would probably call it either a squirrel or a chipmunk and assume they’re actually the same creature. However, they are in fact two difference species, with the squirrel basically being the rat to a chipmunk’s mouse.

That is to say, the chipmunk is small and cute, like a little mouse, while the squirrel is larger and obviously less cute since you don’t see any of them running around with bright red sweaters annoying people named Dave. The largest squirrels can grow up to 45–50 centimeters (18–20 in) long, while chipmunks typically average about 13 centimeters (5 in). It’s easiest to confuse chipmunks with red squirrels when it comes to size, since they are typically only about 20–25 centimeters (8–10 in) long. You might also mistake the golden-mantled ground squirrel for a chipmunk based on the way it looks, as it bears incredibly similar markings to common chipmunks.

In addition to the difference in size and some other physical indicators, another good indicator of whether you’re looking at a squirrel or a chipmunk is where they live. Not just geographically, but physically. Chipmunks burrow underground to nest, while squirrels build nests on the surface or up in trees.

We can also use the mouse-rat comparison to see how chipmunks and squirrels impact the world around them. Rats are more of a pest than mice, and the same is true of squirrels and chipmunks. Squirrels might take refuge in a small nook somewhere in your house, most likely the chimney, and will raid things like bird feeders looking for food. If you suspect there’s a non-rat rodent living in your attic that needs a visit from the exterminator, it’s almost certainly a squirrel racing around dropping little squirrel bombs everywhere, and not a chipmunk.

Show Me The Proof

Spermophilus franklinii: Franklin’s ground squirrel
Sciurus griseus: western gray squirrel
How to Tell the Difference Between a Chipmunk and a Ground Squirrel

  • Hillyard

    Why the prejudice against squirrels? When I lived in Colorado Springs, CO (1982) the whole town was filled with squirrels, it always amazed me to see them in the downtown area, unafraid of the people.

    • Exiled Phoenix

      I love shooting squirrels.

      • Valkyrie

        Downvoted you for that one -_- I used to have a pet squirrel ………………..

  • Rainer Spott

    Can you really mix up those two animals? At least from my European point of few (no chipmunks here) they always seemed to be as different as tigers and lions.

  • Nestea80

    “Chipmunks and squirrels, to most of us, would appear to be almost identical.” Is that really true? I would think that most people can tell them apart. I don’t think I’ve ever known someone who mixed the two up.

    • looklook

      I don’t know if there are chipmunks where I live but this article didn’t mention that chipmunks have shorter tails, compared to squirrel’s longer, fluffier tail? Or did I watch too much Chip&Dale? Chip & Dale are chipmunks, right?

    • Hillyard

      For the people that don’t the difference, the squirrel is the one with a moose for a best friend.

    • Valkyrie

      Especially another squirrel :D

  • Andyman7714

    I sure don’t get the confusion. Now if somebody can tell me the difference between a squirrel and a kangaroo…

    • Vanstarimin

      It is indeed a tricky one and I share your confusion, but I googled it so we should be right! It would be needlessly obvious to point to the difference in size because that is an evolutionary distraction that masks their close biological relationship. The key difference is the tail. Both of course use it for balance which is why they are so difficult to tell apart. The kangaroo uses its tail to balance itself in preparation for attack. It will the pound you with its hind legs and eviscerate you with its giant toenail. It’s an appalling death. The squirrel with its much fluffier tail, is able to flit from tree to tree, stealing your nuts! I’m not sure which is worse! Lol! :)

  • http://www.seguebythesea.com/ segue

    Jeff, usually I like your articles but this? Seriously? All one has to do is look at the two animals, or photos of them, to see a clear difference.

    • Luiz Alves

      Thing is, not everybody get to see them both. Depending on where someone lives, they can call a chipmunk squirrel and vice-versa. Of course there is a clear difference, but which one is which? Hence the article.

      • http://www.seguebythesea.com/ segue

        Every other poster on this particular article said the same thing I did, but you felt it necessary to reply to me alone?

        • Valkyrie

          He knows that you are female .. he fancies you :P

          • http://www.seguebythesea.com/ segue

            Ahha! The old schoolyard ploy in action!

      • Valkyrie

        Chipmonks have stripes and can sing ….

  • LuiseJasmine

    There is many difference between squirrels and chipmunks.
    https://bitly.com/1gCRsXm+

  • Pawesl

    Chipmunks also typically have stripes on their bodies while squirrels dont.

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