Ground Squirrels vs Tree Squirrels: A Detailed Comparison

As a nature lover who has spent years observing squirrels around the world, I’m often asked how to tell ground squirrels and tree squirrels apart. Ground squirrels vs tree squirrels: while they may look similar at first glance, ground squirrels and tree squirrels have some key differences when it comes to their appearance, behavior, habitat, and impact as pests.

Ground squirrels are larger, have shorter and less bushy tails, tend to be more gray or brown, live in underground burrows, and are considered more of a nuisance. Tree squirrels are smaller, live in trees, have long bushy tails, can be more colorful, and are seen as less destructive.

Appearance: Size, Color, and Tail Differences

The most noticeable way to tell ground squirrels and tree squirrels apart is by looking at their size, coloration, and tails.


Ground squirrels are larger than tree squirrels. On average, ground squirrels measure about 4-28 inches long and can weigh up to 18 lbs. Some species like marmots can even grow up to 30 inches long!

In comparison, tree squirrels are quite small, measuring only 8-24 inches long from head to tail and weighing 1.3 to 24 pounds.


Ground squirrels tend to be more plainly colored in grayish-brown tones that blend in with the dirt environment they live in. This camouflage helps conceal them from predators.

Tree squirrels exhibit much more color variation. While some species like the eastern gray squirrel are gray, other common tree squirrels are reddish-brown, black, or have white bellies.


The tails are a dead giveaway between these two types of squirrels. Ground squirrels have shorter tails that are less bushy. Their tails help them balance when standing upright but are not needed for climbing or gliding.

Tree squirrels have very long, furry tails. Their big, fluffy tails act as a rudder and counterbalance when jumping between trees. They also serve as a blanket to keep tree squirrels warm during sleep.

Habitat: Tree Dwellers vs Underground Burrows

Ground squirrels and tree squirrels live in very different habitats suited to their lifestyles.

Ground Squirrels

As their name implies, ground squirrels live primarily underground in burrow systems. Their burrows provide protection from predators and extremes in weather.

Burrows are dug in open areas like fields, golf courses, parks, roadsides, and gardens. The holes are usually about 3-4 inches wide. Complex burrow systems can be up to 30 feet long and go down 4 feet deep.

Tree Squirrels

Tree squirrels, on the other hand, spend most of their time up in trees. They especially like mature trees in wooded habitats.

Tree squirrels build nests called dreys in the forks of tree branches high up from the ground. These nests are made of interwoven twigs, bark, and leaves and lined with moss, fur, or feathers.

Behaviors: Social vs Solitary

Ground squirrels and tree squirrels behave quite differently, especially when it comes to their social dynamics.

Ground Squirrels

Ground squirrels thrive in highly social environments and tend to reside in expansive colonies. A colony’s burrow system provides space for several adults and their young to live together. There can be up to 20 or more ground squirrels in a colony.

They communicate through various calls and have a complex social structure. Ground squirrels work together to defend their territory and warn each other of danger.

Tree Squirrels

Tree squirrels, on the other hand, tend to be solitary creatures, typically preferring to live and forage alone. They each have their own individual home range for finding food and nesting. Tree squirrels don’t form organized social groups like ground squirrels.

However, their ranges will overlap with other squirrels. At times in winter or when food is scarce, they may temporarily form loose aggregations, but these don’t have a cohesive social hierarchy.

Diet: What Do They Eat?

Both tree squirrels and ground squirrels are omnivores, but their dietary preferences differ.

Ground Squirrels

Ground squirrels feed heavily on seeds, grains, nuts, fruits, and green vegetation. Some species will also eat insects, eggs, or even small vertebrates.

They love snacking on crops like wheat, oats, barley, corn, and alfalfa. They will also ravage home gardens. Ground squirrels gather and hoard large amounts of food in their burrows.

Tree Squirrels

The diet of tree squirrels is based primarily on mast, including acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and pine cones. They also consume tree blossoms, berries, mushrooms, some insects, and bird eggs.

Tree squirrels are responsible for planting many new trees by burying and “forgetting” the nuts and seeds they collect. They tend to cause less crop and garden damage than ground squirrels.

Impact on Homes and Gardens

When it comes to backyard pests, ground squirrels cause more property damage concerns than tree squirrels.

Ground Squirrels

Ground squirrels are notorious nuisance wildlife. Their extensive burrowing can undermine building foundations, sidewalks, driveways, and irrigation ditches. They will also chew on irrigation tubing and electrical wires.

In gardens and farms, ground squirrels voraciously feed on many types of vegetables, fruits, and grains, sometimes destroying entire crops. They will strip bark and gnaw on ornamental trees.

Tree Squirrels

Tree squirrels cause some issues by taking fruit off trees and making noisy nests in attics. But in general, they are less destructive than ground squirrels.

Sometimes tree squirrels will damage buildings by gnawing wood siding or digging out insulation to use in nests. But they don’t burrow nearly as much, so have less impact on landscapes.


Tree squirrels vs ground squirrels… To summarize the main differences: ground squirrels are larger, have shorter and less bushy tails, tend to be more gray or brown, live in underground burrows, and are considered more of a nuisance. Tree squirrels are smaller, live in trees, have long bushy tails, can be more colorful, and are seen as less destructive.

Being able to identify whether backyard squirrels are ground squirrels or tree squirrels can help determine if control measures are needed to prevent damage. Let me know if you have any other squirrel questions!

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