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Chipmunks or ground squirrels? Putting an end to the confusion

Julie Sutor
Summit County correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Mark Fox
ALL |

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado – Spying a chipmunk may not be the most exciting of wildlife sightings in Summit County. Nevertheless, the endearing little striped rodents are some of the easiest fauna to observe – if what you’re seeing is actually a chipmunk, that is.

Chipmunks can be a little confusing. They are members of the squirrel family, but they aren’t the only squirrels out there with stripes. In other words, all chipmunks are striped squirrels, but not all striped squirrels are chipmunks.

The most common chipmunk in Summit County, and all of Colorado, is the least chipmunk – one of five chipmunk species in the Centennial State. The least chipmunk is the smallest of the lot, which also includes the Colorado, Hopi, Uinta and cliff chipmunks.



The least chipmunk has five dark stripes running down its back and one dark stripe across its eyes – a giveaway that the animal you’re looking at is indeed a chipmunk. On other striped ground squirrels, the stripes do not extend across their faces. Furthermore, chipmunks tend to have smaller bodies than their squirrel cousins. The relatively large prairie dogs and marmots are also ground squirrels, for example.

According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, nearly every part of Colorado is home to at least one species of ground squirrel. The species most commonly confused with chipmunks are the golden-mantled ground squirrel, which makes its home throughout the mountains, and the 13-lined ground squirrel, which lives in the grasslands of the eastern plains and the southwest. In Summit County, the brownish-gray Wyoming ground squirrel is most common, but it does not add to the confusion, as its coat is devoid of stripes.



Chipmunks and other ground squirrels subsist off similar diets of seeds, berries, flowers, fruits and insects. Plant matter comprises about 95 percent of their food. However, what chipmunks do with their food is a little different: Chipmunks store caches of food in their dens (after transporting it there with their famously expansive cheeks) and wake up periodically to eat throughout the winter, although they will usually not come above ground in snowy months. In contrast, other ground squirrels eat voraciously to build up fat stores before hibernating all winter long.

Chipmunks and most other ground squirrels mate in the spring and have litters of about six young after a month-long gestation period.

The Division of Wildlife advises against feeding chipmunks, as tempting and easy as it may be.

“We discourage artificial feeding of all wild animals,” DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said. “With respect to chipmunks and squirrels, some people try to hand-feed them and then get bitten. They can carry diseases, and you don’t want that.”

Also, human food is almost always very different from the rodents’ natural diet and thus not healthy for them. Human food becomes especially unhealthy when it draws the animals to campgrounds, yards and other areas where they’re likely to get run over by vehicles.

Lastly, since rodents serve as prey for many predators, luring chipmunks means you’re also inviting coyotes, foxes and mountain lions into your midst.

jsutor@summitdaily.com.


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