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Tree Squirrel Vs Ground Squirrel (6 Differences)

Tree squirrels and ground squirrels are part of the same family: Sciuridae. Both animals are rodents and share similarities but are also very different. There are at least a dozen species of tree and ground squirrels present in the United States. Their differences are relatively easy to spot, and this article will highlight how these two creatures differ from one another. Let’s compare the tree squirrel vs ground squirrel.

Tree Squirrel vs Ground Squirrel: 6 Differences

Here are a few of the main differences between the tree squirrel and the ground squirrel.

1. Ground squirrels and tree squirrels prefer to be in different locations.

Squirrel climbing on a tree
Squirrel climbing on a tree | image by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

As their names suggest, ground squirrels spend most of their time on the ground, and tree squirrels spend much of their time in the trees. Tree squirrels can be found in cities, parks, and forests, but ground squirrels are terrestrial and prefer vast grasslands and other open areas where they spend their days foraging for food and digging burrows.

2. Tree squirrels and ground squirrels nest in different places.

Ground Squirrel emerges on its burrow
Ground Squirrel emerges on its burrow | image by Bering Land Bridge Nationa via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Not surprisingly, tree squirrels build their nests in the trees. Tree squirrel nests are called dreys and typically at least twenty feet off the ground. Tree squirrels will build their nests in the fork where two branches split off, in the holes of tree trunks, or even in abandoned bird’s nests.

Ground squirrels dig burrows in the ground and build their nests there. These underground burrows can be anywhere from five to thirty feet long and up to four feet deep.

3. Tree squirrels and ground squirrels have different tails and legs.

Squirrel at rest in a branch
Squirrel at rest in a branch | image by C Watts via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Tree squirrels tend to have long, bushy tails. Most ground squirrels have short tails, but some have slightly longer tails. If their tails are longer, they are still less bushy than that of their tree squirrel relatives.

For example, the California ground squirrel is similar in color to the Easter gray squirrel and actually has quite a bushy tail; however, if you look closely, the California ground squirrel’s tail is significantly shorter. Tree squirrels also have long, strong legs to help them jump from branch to branch. Ground squirrels have much shorter legs.

4. Ground squirrels and tree squirrels have different fur colors and patterns.

Harris’ Antelope Squirrel in boojum skeleton
Harris’ Antelope Squirrel in boojum skeleton | image by Katja Schulz via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Tree squirrels typically range from light gray to reddish-brown and have lighter-colored bellies. Some tree squirrels are black. These tree-dwelling rodents may have lighter fur mixed in with darker fur but are not usually patterned.

Conversely, ground squirrels are similar in color to tree squirrels, but many ground squirrels, like the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, have distinct patterns.

5. Tree squirrels and ground squirrels have different hibernation habits.

Ground Squirrel sleeping in nest
Ground Squirrel sleeping in nest | image by Garst, Warren via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

You may notice a decline in the appearance of tree squirrels in the winter months, but it isn’t because they are hibernating. While tree squirrels do prepare for the winter by burying food to find when food is scarce, they do not hibernate during the colder months.

They do spend more time in their nests to stay warm, which explains their scarcity. Not all ground squirrels hibernate, but those that live in colder climates, like the Arctic ground squirrel, do hibernate for several months.

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6. Ground squirrels and tree squirrels have different diets.

Ground Squirrel eating carrot
Ground Squirrel eating carrot | image by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

While both of these rodents are omnivores, their choice of residence makes their diets a little different. Tree squirrels eat nuts, flowers, and bark from trees, while ground squirrels eat things they find on the ground, like grass, weeds, flowers, and seeds. Though classified as herbivores, tree squirrels have also been known to nosh on bird eggs.

What is a Tree Squirrel?

Tree Squirrel eating
Tree Squirrel eating | image by Astyan42 via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Tree squirrels are rodent members of the Sciuridae family. These slender, lanky mammals are diurnal, meaning they are most active during the day and sleep at night. There are twenty-eight species of tree squirrels in the world.

In the US, you will find Eastern gray squirrels, Fox squirrels, Douglas squirrels, and Abert’s squirrels. If startled, a tree squirrel will scurry up a tree for protection.

What is a Ground Squirrel?

Group of Ground Squirrels
Group of Ground Squirrels | image by Charlie Day via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Ground squirrels are a family of rodents in the Sciuridae family. In the US, you will find the California ground squirrel, the marmot, and the thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Like tree squirrels, ground squirrels are also diurnal.

Ground squirrels prefer to live in open fields, grasslands, or pastures and can even be found on golf courses. A ground squirrel will scurry across the ground to its burrow if startled.


Ground squirrels and tree squirrels may be members of the same family and have a lot of similarities, but they also have significant differences. Their name suggests one of the biggest differences between the two. Tree squirrels live and nest in the trees, while ground squirrels live and next on the ground.

They also have physical differences such as fur patterns, tail length and bushiness, and leg length. Some differences may be harder to spot than others, but if you look closely, you should be able to tell these two types of rodents apart.

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