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