How to Identify a Ground Squirrel

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Ground squirrels can be found around the globe, even in deserts and arctic regions. Though they can be mistaken for other species, especially chipmunks and tree squirrels, there are some key features that will help you identify a ground squirrel and distinguish it from its close cousins.

  • Notice the squirrel's size. Ground squirrels are larger than chipmunks and smaller than tree squirrels.

  • Observe the squirrel's reaction when startled. Ground squirrels will dash quickly into their burrows to avoid danger, while tree squirrels will climb a nearby tree, building or telephone pole.

  • Examine the squirrel's markings. While some ground squirrels are striped or spotted, they will only exhibit markings on their backs, whereas chipmunks will have their characteristic stripes on both their heads and their backs. Tree squirrels, on the other hand, are uniform in color.

  • Study the animal's tail. Most ground squirrels have shorter, less bushy tails than tree squirrels. While chipmunks and ground squirrels have roughly equally bushy tails, the tail on a chipmunk usually is longer than the animal's body. Most ground squirrels also display lighter colors on the underside of their tails, while chipmunks and tree squirrels have uniform-colored tails.

  • Count the number of babies. If you're trying to identify a ground squirrel in the spring, this is one good way to distinguish it from a chipmunk. While ground squirrels will have 7 or 8 young in each litter, a chipmunk will only have 4 or 5.

  • Check for true hibernation. If it is wintertime, a ground squirrel will go into true hibernation, while chipmunks exhibit what is known as torpor. A chipmunk in torpor will have a higher body temperature and wake up more frequently to feed on stored food than a hibernating ground squirrel.

Tips & Warnings

  • Ground squirrels are strictly diurnal, which means they are active in the daytime.
  • In hotter, dryer areas, some ground squirrels will estivate, which means they will go into a kind of summer hibernation to avoid the harsher times in that climate.
  • Though they may look adorable, don't pet a ground squirrel in the wild. Ground squirrels can carry diseases like plague and parasites, and they tend to bite. You'll also want to keep children a respectful distance from these squirrels, as these animals may attack if they feel cornered or provoked.

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