Red Squirrel vs Chipmunk: Key Differences Explained

Written by Colby Maxwell
Updated: January 23, 2023
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Squirrels and chipmunks are some of the most common animals that we see in suburbia. Most of the time, humans are pretty comfortable with these furry little creatures, even if they are technically “rodents.”. In North America, varying species of squirrels and chipmunks abound, and it can be tough to tell the difference between them. Today, we are going to compare two relatively common species, the red squirrel and the chipmunk. Let’s discover: Red Squirrel vs Chipmunk; what makes them unique?

Comparing a red squirrel and a chipmunk

Red squirrels and chipmunks vary in size, color, and diet.
Red squirrelChipmunk
SizeSmaller than most North American squirrels. Usually 10-15 inches long and slightly larger than a chipmunk.8-10 inches long.
ColorRusty red with a white underbelly.Reddish-brown bodies with a white belly. Black and white stripes along the back.
DietGranivores but specialize in conifer seeds. Common foods include spruce seeds, mushrooms, berries, and even bird eggs.Omnivorous. Seeds, nuts, fruits, and buds. Occasionally eat small animals.
DistributionCanada, Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, and the Northeastern United States.North America and Asia.
HabitatYear-round territory of conifer forests, but has recently been expanding into hardwoods.Depends entirely on the species.

The 5 main differences between a red squirrel and a chipmunk

The main differences between red squirrels and chipmunks are that red squirrels are larger, are granivores, and mostly live in Canada and the Rocky Mountains. Chipmunks are smaller, are omnivores, and live across North America and Asia.

Red squirrels are a species of squirrel that lives in the northern regions of North America. They are often confused with the European red squirrel as they are called the same thing, but they are entirely different species. North American red squirrels are less brightly colored and don’t have the ear tufts that European ones do.

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Chipmunks aren’t actually a single species but a collective name for all of the small striped rodents in the Sciuridae family. Most species of chipmunk live in North America, although the Siberian chipmunk is found in Asia. The eastern chipmunk is the most widespread, but there are over 24 species across the country.

Although chipmunks and squirrels are quite similar in their ecological niche, there are some differences that separate them. Generally, chipmunks are much smaller than even the smallest squirrels. Additionally, they always have stripes down their backs. Squirrels come in a few colors, but common ones include red, grey, black, and brown.

Let’s take a look at these differences, plus a few more, in detail below.

Red Squirrel vs Chipmunk: Size

Red Animals - Red Squirrel

Red squirrels are a few inches longer and a little heavier than chipmunks.

©seawhisper/Shutterstock.com

Even though red squirrels are small when compared to other squirrels, they are still larger than chipmunks. On average, red squirrels measure 10-15 inches long, a bit smaller than the more common grey squirrel.

Chipmunks are known for their small size, even when compared to squirrels. Including their tails, chipmunks measure 8-10 inches long, rarely exceeding that. Many species are even smaller.

Red Squirrel vs Chipmunk: Color

chipmunk repellent

Chipmunks are similar to red squirrels but have white and black stripes.

©Cindy Larson/Shutterstock.com

One of the most distinctive differences between the two is their colorations. American red squirrels are reddish-brown and have cream or white bellies. Additionally, red squirrels are interspersed with grey around their legs and shoulders, with their tails being a bit brighter red.

Chipmunks vary drastically in their colors, mostly depending on their species. Generally, they are rusty brown, have cream bellies, and have a white and black striped back. Some species, like the yellow-pine chipmunk, are entirely black and white. Still, one of the best identifiers for chipmunks is their classic back stripes.

Red Squirrel vs Chipmunk: Diet

Red Squirrel eating nuts on a mossy log against green background on the forest.

Red squirrels mostly eat white spruce seeds.

©Giedriius/Shutterstock.com

The red squirrel has a unique diet mostly related to its habitat. Red squirrels are granivores and primarily eat seeds. White spruce seeds make up around 50% of a red squirrel’s diet, although they also eat buds, mushrooms, berries, and even bird eggs.

Chipmunks are much more varied in their diets and are classified as omnivores. They generally prefer seeds, shoots, buds, and flowers but will also eat insects, small reptiles, and even newborn birds. In human proximity, they will alter their diets to eat crops or other things humans provide.

Red Squirrel vs Chipmunk: Distribution

Chipmunks are found across all of the United States and Siberia.

©Gilles Gonthier, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons – License

Chipmunks can be found across the entirety of North America, with different regions having different chipmunk species. A single species lives in Siberia.

The American red squirrel can be found across most of Canada, provided there is tree cover. Their range also extends into the United States, primarily via the Rocky Mountains. Their southern range ends in Arizona.

Red Squirrel vs Chipmunk: Habitat

Little baby red squirrel sitting on a log.

Red squirrels prefer coniferous forests, while chipmunks can live almost anywhere.

©Miroslav Hlavko/Shutterstock.com

These squirrels are arboreal and generally prefer coniferous forests in the north. They can be found in spruce and pine forests, although certain studies show that they may be expanding their range into deciduous forests. Their coniferous preference is due to their dependence on white spruce seeds.

Chipmunks are widespread across most of the United States. The various species live in deserts, forests, mountains, plains, and suburbia. Generally speaking, one species of chipmunk or another lives almost everywhere in the US.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/rodmacpherson


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About the Author

Colby is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering outdoors, unique animal stories, and science news. Colby has been writing about science news and animals for five years and holds a bachelor's degree from SEU. A resident of NYC, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone about what birds he saw at his local birdfeeder.

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