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Tree Squirrels vs. Ground Squirrels: How To Tell The Difference

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The difference between tree squirrels and ground squirrels is where they live and how they spend their days. Tree squirrels live in tree canopies of forested areas while ground squirrels live on the ground in grasslands to the slopes of mountains. 

Tree squirrels and ground squirrels are part of the same rodent family (Sciuridae) but they have notable differences.

One of the main differences is found in their name: tree squirrels prefer trees, and ground squirrels prefer the ground.

But, there are other significant differences.  

In this article, we look at the difference and similarities between tree squirrels and ground squirrels and how you can tell them apart. 

Tree Squirrels vs. Ground Squirrels: Overview  

Tree squirrels live in forests and city parks. Ground squirrels are often found in grasslands. They spend their days on the ground and dig burrows to sleep in. 

SpeciesEastern Gray SquirrelAmerican Red SquirrelFox SquirrelCalifornian Ground Squirrel Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel
TypeTree SquirrelTree SquirrelTree SquirrelGround SquirrelGround Squirrel
Description Light grey, and grey-brown, dark grey, and black fur. Creamy white underbelly. White flecks in bushy grey tails.Reddish-brown coat. Creamy white underside. White rings around the eyes. Tufted ears in the winter.
Gray to light brown and reddish-brown with an orange underside. Furry tail. Ear tufts in winter.Gray fur peppered with light and dark brown mottle and white tips. Small and slender. Thirteen alternating dark brown and tan strips from the head to the base of the tail. 
Size15-20.7 inches12.6 inches18 – 27 inches13 -20 inches7 – 12.5 inches
HabitatForest and woodlands of more than 40 hectares of tree canopies.Coniferous forests, and suburbs with coniferous tree canopies.Forests and smaller urban forested areas.Grassland, woodlands, valleys, and rocky outcrops.Grasslands and urban areas with short grass.
DistributionWest of the Mississippi River to the North of Canada.The northern half of North America. Eastern and the central United States between northern Mexico and Canada.California.Central North America.
Lifespan6-12.5 years5-8 years3-12.6 years6 years 7.9 years 

Related: Types of Squirrels

Tree Squirrels Overview 

There are 28 species of tree squirrels (Sciurus) in the world. Common tree squirrels include eastern gray squirrels, fox squirrels, and American red squirrels. 

Tree squirrels live in forests, woodlands, tree-lined suburbs, and city parks where they have at least 40 hectares of a continuous tree canopy.  

They live in the trees’ canopy, nesting between branches or on tree hollows. A large part of their diet is dependent on the trees[1] and includes the following:

  • Tree nuts
  • Seeds
  • Acorns
  • Tree buds
  • Flowers
  • Bark

Tree squirrels are omnivores and are diurnal (awake during the day and asleep at night). 

They have adapted to living in urban environments and are viewed as pets when they try to nest in attics or barns. 

Tree Squirrels Overview

Ground Squirrels Overview 

Ground squirrels are terrestrial rodents that spend their days on the ground or digging underground burrows. There are more than 62 species of ground squirrels in the world. 

Commonly known ground squirrels in the U.S include the small Thirteen-lined ground squirrel, the medium-sized California ground squirrel, and larger species like marmots.  

Ground squirrels are omnivores. They are also diurnal (awake during the day and asleep at night). 

They are known for burrowing in the ground and standing up tall on their hind legs. Ground squirrels that live in cold regions are also the only squirrels known to hibernate for months.[2]

Ground Squirrels Overview

Tree Squirrels Vs. Ground Squirrels Differences

Tree squirrels and ground squirrels have different physical features, live in different habitats, and build their nests in different places and ways. Some ground squirrels hibernate, while tree squirrels do not. They have different diets depending on their habitat.

There are five main differences between tree squirrels and ground squirrels:

  1. Physical features 
  2. Habitat 
  3. Where they sleep 
  4. Hibernation 
  5. Diet 
Differences Tree Squirrels Ground squirrels 
Legs Long legs Short legs 
Tail Long, bushy tail Short to moderately long and less bushy tail. 
Fur They have mottled or flecked fur but few have recognizable patterns.   Common to have patterned fur coat stripes and lines of spots. 
Habitat Live in forests, woodlands, and areas with at least 40 hectares of continuous tree canopies. Do not need to live in forests, woodlands, or areas with continuous tree canopies. Many live in grasslands. 
Sleep The sleep in treetop nests or tree hollows. They sleep in underground burrows. 
Hibernation Do not hibernate. Hibernate if living in a cold winter region. 
Diet The Plant-based portion of their diet is high in foods from the trees, like tree buds, flowers, nuts, seeds, acorns, and bark. The plant-based portion of their diet is high in foods available on the ground, like weed and grass seeds, foliage, and flowers. 

1. Physical Features 

Tree Squirrels and Ground Squirrels Differences in Physical Features

Tree squirrels have slim bodies, long strong legs, and long and bushy, cylindrical-shaped tails.[3] 

Ground squirrels have short legs and a short or moderately long tail. Most ground squirrels’ tails are not as bushy as tree squirrels’ tails.[2]

Tree squirrels’ fur color ranges from gray to reddish-brown to dark gray with creamy white underside to solid black. While tree squirrels often have flecks of lighter fur, most are not patterned.

Ground squirrels’ fur ranges from gray, and light brown to reddish-brown and dark brown. Many ground squirrels have distinguishing patterns, like stripes and lines of spots. 

2. Habitat

Tree Squirrels and Ground Squirrels Differences in Habitat

Tree Squirrels live in forests, woodlands, or areas with at least 40 hectares of continuous tree canopies, like city parks.

Ground squirrels live in forests, but many live in prairies or grasslands or urban areas where there is short grass (like golf courses) and don’t need tree canopies. 

3. Where They Sleep

Tree Squirrels and Ground Squirrels Differences in Where They Sleep

Tree squirrels build nests in trees using twigs. They also build dens inside tree hollows. Dens are often abandoned woodpecker holes. Tree squirrels prefer dens over nests during the cold winter months.[4]

Ground squirrels dig burrows underground and nest in them. The ground provides insulation during colder months.

Related: How & Where Do Squirrels Sleep?

4. Hibernation

Tree squirrels do not hibernate in winter. Ground squirrels that live in regions where winters are cold, like the Arctic ground squirrel and the Thirteen-lined ground squirrel, hibernate throughout winter. 

5. Diet 

Tree Squirrels and Ground Squirrels Differences in Diet

Squirrels eat foods available in their habitats. Tree squirrels eat food from the trees they live in. This includes tree buds, flowers, nuts, seeds, acorns, and bark. 

Ground squirrels eat plants found on the ground, like weed and grass seeds, foliage, and flowers. 

Related: What Do Squirrels Eat?

Tree Squirrels vs. Ground Squirrels Similarities

Despite their difference, tree squirrels and ground squirrels have some physical similarities, particularly their head and eye shape. They are also both diurnal and  omnivores. 

We can find similarities between tree and ground squirrels in these areas:  

  1. Physical features
  2. Circadian rhythm
  3. Diet

1. Physical Features 

Tree Squirrels and Ground Squirrels Similarities in Physical Features

Tree squirrels and ground squirrels have these similar physical features: 

  • Large almond-shaped eyes and small ears. 
  • Monocular vision (eyes on the sides of the heads). 
  • Rounded heads with small ears. 
  • Short necks.
  • Short fur. 

2. Circadian Rhythm

Both tree and ground squirrels are diurnal, meaning that they are awake and active during the day and sleep at night. 

3. Diet 

Although tree squirrels and ground squirrels eat different foods found in their habitats, most squirrels are omnivores. Tree squirrels and ground squirrels eat insects, small animals, and carrion. 

How to Tell the Difference Between Tree Squirrels and Ground Squirrels

The main difference between tree and ground squirrels is where they live, how they stand, and the appearance of their tails. Tree squirrels live in trees, and ground squirrels live in burrows. Tree squirrels have fluffier tails, but ground squirrels can stand on their back legs, something tree squirrels don’t do. 

These are the main differences to focus on when distinguishing between tree squirrels and ground squirrels:

  • Location seen or found. 
  • Where they run to when scared.  
  • How they stand.  
  • Their tails. 

Location 

Tree squirrels are most comfortable in the tree tops. While they primarily live off of food from trees, they do also forage on the forest floor. They dig and bury food supplies for winter in the ground, but they always return to their nest or dens high up in the trees. 

Ground squirrels don’t climb trees, even though some can. They live in underground burrows. Their burrows are carefully constructed as complicated networks, allowing them to escape predators. 

Where They Run To When Threatened

When danger strikes, tree squirrels will jump from branch to branch and disappear into the treetop canopy. Ground squirrels will run and duck into one of their burrow entrances. 

Body Position

Another tell-tale difference is how the squirrels hold themselves. Tree squirrels stand on all four legs or sit on their back legs. Ground squirrels stand on their back legs.

Tail Appearance 

Tree squirrels have fluffy, full cylindrical-shaped tails. Ground squirrels have short to long tails that are not as fluffy as tree squirrels’ tails. 

Tree Squirrels and Ground Squirrels Tail Appearance 

California Ground Squirrel vs. Tree Squirrel

Californian ground squirrel and the common tree squirrel known as an Eastern gray squirrel are grayish and close in size. A closer inspection of the fur coloring and the fullness of their tails set them apart. 

The Californian ground squirrel and the Eastern gray squirrel have varying shades of gray fur and are similar in size. The Californian ground squirrel grows to 13 and 20 inches long. An adult Eastern gray squirrel is 15-20.7 inches long. 

Their tails and the subtle color variation of their fur differentiate them. 

The Difference in Tails 

The tail of the Californian ground squirrel is one of the longest seen in ground squirrels, but it is not as fluffy or as full as the Eastern gray squirrel. 

The Difference in Fur

 If you look at the fur of the Californian ground squirrel, you will see that it is peppered with light and dark brown mottle and has white tips. Their underbellies range in color from a light creamy tan color to rust color orange. [5] 

Eastern Gray Squirrels’ fur ranges from light grey to grey-brown and dark grey to black. They have a creamy white underbelly and white flecks on the fur of their bushy grey tails. 

About Monique Warner

Monique is an avid dog lover who grew up with dogs, cats, and budgies as pets. She has worked as a pet sitter and dog walker. With her passion for dogs and pets alike, she writes articles with the intention of helping pet owners solve their biggest struggles.

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