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How to Tell the Difference Between a Chipmunk and a Ground Squirrel

A young Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

A chipmunk (Tamias species)

In the Cascades Range of Washington and Oregon, and to the east of these mountains, you are likely to encounter one or more species of energetic, small-ish, diurnal rodents.

My guess is that most people would point to any one of these rodents– at least one of the stripey species– and call it a ‘chipmunk.’ I did a quick Google Image search for ‘chipmunk Oregon’ and the results included many photos of ground squirrels.

There are indeed several chipmunk species in central and eastern Washington and Oregon. But there are also ground squirrels. No less than 12 species of ground squirrel live in this region.

Most of the ground squirrels are easy to distinguish from chipmunks because they (the squirrels) lack stripes, having relatively uniform coat colors.

All of the chipmunks have alternating light and dark stripes that run the length of their bodies, from nose to rump.

The squirrel most likely to be mistaken for a chipmunk is the Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis). This species has stripes on its body and coloration that is remarkably similar to those of the Yellow-pine Chipmunk (Tamias ameonus) and the Least Chipmunk (Tamias minimus).

The Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel is larger (11-13 inches, including the tail) than the chipmunks and, importantly, does not have stripes on its head.

Look at the animals’ heads in the photos above and you will see the difference in striping.

There are actually two species of golden-mantled ground squirrel. The Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis) is found in Oregon and the far east of Washington, whereas the Cacade Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus saturatus) lives in the Cascades Range of Washington.

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7 comments… add one

  • Katie September 2, 2012, 12:22 PM

    In our mountains in So Ca, named the San Jacintos, the squirrels are quite a bit larger than the chipmunks. Our squirrels our gray with long, bushy tails. The small Chipmunks run around with their tails straight up in the air and are easily distinguished from the squirrels. Love watching both species going about their business!

  • jill i September 14, 2012, 8:55 AM

    I did not know this difference! No doubt I have confused a ground squirrel for a chipmunk many times! Thanks for the zoology lesson. :)

  • Catrina October 6, 2012, 3:40 PM

    Wonderful, clear descriptions. I posted to Fb too. Thanks, Ivan!

  • scott June 7, 2013, 11:00 AM

    Am I imagining it or does the Chipmunk have pointier ears than the Squirrel?
    It also seems to have slightly more defined or sharper facial features.
    Just guessing.

    • Ivan Phillipsen June 8, 2013, 6:56 AM

      Hi, Scott. There might be subtle differences in the ear shapes of the two rodents, but to me, the presence/absense of facial stripes is a far more helpful characteristic to look at.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • MysticalChicken May 12, 2014, 4:42 AM

    I live in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and when I was around thirteen or so (early ’90s) my family and I went on a vacation to Sun River in the eastern part of the state and there were ground squirrels ALL. OVER. THE. PLACE. We fed them Sun Chips and they clambered all over my little brother (who would have been around eight, I think). We thought they were chipmunks as well, but were corrected by one of the hotel staff (I think? it’s been over twenty years) and told they were ground squirrels and how to tell the difference, and since then I’ve always been able to.

  • Lisa June 6, 2014, 12:44 PM

    Yesterday I saw (on a big lawn) a rodent (5 inches maybe) stuffing its cheek pouches…it had almost no hair on its tail, which seemed short in relation to the body. From what you’ve written, I surmise it was a ground squirrel and not a chipmunk (no stripes at all) and a golden brown color. Is there a kind that has very little hair on the tail?

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