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What is the Difference Between a Squirrel and a Chipmunk?

A chipmunk.
Dried coyote urine can repel squirrels and chipmunks.
A red squirrel.
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  • Originally Written By: Jennifer Fenn
  • Revised By: Phil Riddel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2014
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Both squirrels and chipmunks belong to the same family of rodents, which also includes marmots and prairie dogs. There are many different species of squirrel, but they can be grouped into three main types: ground, tree, and flying. The latter two are quite distinct from chipmunks, but ground squirrels are very similar in their appearance and habits, and it can be argued that chipmunks are simply a type of ground squirrel. The main distinguishing features are that chipmunks are generally smaller and have stripes on their faces.

While squirrels are found all over the planet, except for the polar regions, chipmunks are confined to North America, apart from one species found in northeast Asia. They have, however, been introduced into a few other areas. In places where both animals are present, it may sometimes be difficult to tell certain species apart.

Appearance

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Like other rodents, both of these animals have four sharp incisors, used for gnawing, and flat back teeth, used for grinding hard food like nuts. They typically have four toes on each front foot, and five on each back foot. In areas where both are found, chipmunks are smaller, typically weighing only 2 to 4 ounces (56.7 to 113.4 grams), but a young ground squirrel could easily be mistaken for an adult chipmunk. In terms of color, both are quite variable. Chipmunks always have stripes, and while this is also true of many ground squirrels, they differ in that the stripes do not extend onto the face.

Habits and Behavior

These two types of rodent tend to prefer different habitats, although there is some overlap. Chipmunks are mostly found in forested areas, where they can find trees and bushes that provide fruit, nuts and seeds. Ground squirrels, however, like to live in grassy areas, which why they are often seen in parks and golf courses. The animals differ also in their burrows. A squirrel’s burrow can be identified by the mound of earth at its entrance, while a chipmunk’s is clear of all dirt and is usually located at the base of a tree or bush.

A chipmunk also has pouches inside its cheeks, which it uses for storing food while foraging. The puffed-out cheeks may be quite visible, but are not a reliable identifying feature, as some ground squirrels also have them. A clearer difference is that chipmunks tend to hold their tails straight in the air while running, while a squirrel runs with its tail at a horizontal angle.

Both types of animal hibernate, but the two differ in the way they store food and prepare for the winter. A squirrel will eat more as winter approaches, in order to build up its body mass enough to sustain it through the long, cold months, whereas a chipmunk eats food stored in its pouches as well as in and around its burrow during that time. Squirrels tend to have multiple food stores, and they may briefly emerge during the winter to feed on days when conditions are not too harsh.

Relationship with Humans

Both animals can be useful to humans in that they include insects in their diets and help keep numbers down. They can also, however, be quite troublesome. Squirrels in particular may cause damage to gardens by digging up bulbs, eating buds and shoots, and stripping bark from trees to use as nesting material. They will often raid bird food, sometimes showing great ingenuity in getting into feeders despite efforts to deter them. They may also venture into homes and sometimes build nests in lofts and attics. Chipmunks tend to be less destructive, but they may eat seeds and bulbs and sometimes enter homes.

There are a number of humane options for dealing with problems caused by these animals. Entry into the home can be prevented by screening windows and blocking any holes or gaps that might allow access to a loft or other part of the house. The rodents can also be caught using commercially available traps, to be released in another area. Dried blood and the urine of predators, such as foxes and coyotes, may also have a deterrent effect.

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anon963372
Post 15

I purchased a trap at local hardware store. They were $30, very easy to use and humane. I got three sizes. The smallest is for mice. I purchased a medium one for ground squirrel problems. The large would be for regular squirrels, rabbits etc. These guys love peanut butter! I have trapped eight in two weeks and took them to the park to release. My neighbor caught about 30 last spring/summer.

They are cute to watch but look out. They are extremely destructive under sidewalks, patios etc. They will undermine very heavily. You would be surprised whenever you find it necessary to perhaps replace or for any reason dig up the concrete.

orangey03
Post 14

I think I saw my first chipmunk before I saw my first squirrel. We had a lot of chipmunks in our yard when I was little, and they were so cute!

I love watching them run so quickly that they became a blur. I also loved watching them stand on the old tree stump out back and stuff their cheeks with food. I had to watch them from a window, though, because they were really skittish.

Oceana
Post 13

I had never seen red squirrels until I moved into a house with several big trees surrounding it. The first time I saw one, I thought it was a giant chipmunk because of its strange color!

My dad calls them fox squirrels. They have red fur and white noses, and they sit around chewing on nuts while staring intently at you, as long as you don't get too close.

I think they are bigger than most other squirrels, so they are definitely bigger than chipmunks. I can see the difference now that I have gotten used to them being around.

Kristee
Post 12

@wavy58 – Ground squirrels have stripes, but you can still tell them apart from chipmunks by the way they hold their tails. Grey squirrels are tree squirrels, so you probably just have this kind around your area.

I had never seen a ground squirrel until I went hiking through a field with a friend. I thought it was a chipmunk at first, but as I got closer, I could tell that it didn't have the big chubby cheeks and it held its tail horizontally.

wavy58
Post 11

I didn't know that squirrels had stripes! I've never seen a squirrel that wasn't solid grey.

If squirrels have stripes, I don't know how I'm going to be able to distinguish them from chipmunks. I always thought that stripes were the thing that differentiated them!

SarahGen
Post 10

My daughter and I were taking a walk in a forest trail near our home. We spotted what we thought was a chipmunk. But then we did an internet search and realized that it wasn't a chipmunk but a baby gray squirrel. The baby squirrel we saw had a longer tail than a chipmunk and no stripes.

ZipLine
Post 9

@anamur-- As far as I know, chipmunks store their food in the tunnels that they dig underground. They spend the winter hibernating and so will store their nuts in the tunnel to eat during that time.

Squirrels are a bit more active than chipmunks in winter and hide their food everywhere. They do this because if another animal finds their food, they will still have remaining nuts elsewhere to feed on. They can remember where they hid them though and find it when they need to.

serenesurface
Post 8

I noticed that the squirrels in our yard dig up the ground to hide nuts. They simply dig a small hole, place the nut and then cover it again. And I think they hide them in the same area, usually under a tree.

Do chipmunks have the same habit when it comes to storing food?

anon274841
Post 5

Oh, leave the poor squirrels alone. They were here before we were!

anon136436
Post 3

One of the problems with relocation is it merely relocates the problem.

We had so many in our area they destroyed bird boxes, feeders, damaged stored vehicles and got into attics. A few of the neighbors decided they had had enough and aggressively tried to eliminate them. I know one family that took out more than 100! Hopefully we will see nesting birds again.

CarrotIsland
Post 2

@dega2010: I understand completely what you mean. I had the same problem a couple of years back. I did a lot of research because I wanted some of the squirrels gone but I did not want to harm them. We had a family of squirrels living in our attic.

My husband decided that trapping them was the best method. We used some small, steel cages and when we caught them, we simply relocated them. He read that it is better to use a small trap because in a larger trap, they can run around and injure themselves.

You need to place them in a shaded area because once they are trapped they can get very hot in direct sunlight and could die from heat exhaustion.

We alleviated most of our problem and got rid of the family living in the attic!

dega2010
Post 1

Is there a safe and humane way to get rid of squirrels? We have more squirrels in our yard than you can imagine. They have really caused a lot of problems. They have nested in our buildings and even gotten into our attic. I desperately need help with my squirrel problems!

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