Your guide to Missouri’s nuttiest mammal family
The squirrel family tree has many branches. Tree squirrels, ground squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, and prairie dogs all belong to this big clan. In fact, more than 250 kinds of squirrels exist worldwide. They’re found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Seven kinds of squirrels live in Missouri.
No matter where they’re found, all squirrels share a buck-toothed smile and a bushy-tailed behind. They use their front teeth, called incisors, to gnaw on nuts and wood, clip vegetation and roots, and chew through soil when digging. In most squirrels, the incisors never quit growing.
If they did, they’d quickly be worn down by all the use they get! Squirrels that live in trees generally have longer tails than those that live on the ground. And some squirrels — including chipmunks, woodchucks, and ground squirrels — have pockets of skin in their mouths called cheek pouches that can be packed full of nuts and seeds.
As their name suggests, ground squirrels live on the ground — or, more precisely, under the ground. Their paws have long claws to help them dig, and their bodies are long and skinny to squirm through tight tunnels. Toward the end of summer, ground squirrels pack on pounds until they have doubled in weight.
Then, each chubby squirrel plugs the openings to its burrow, crawls into its nest, curls into a furry ball, and falls into a deep, DEEP sleep known as hibernation (high-bur-nay-shun). The super snoozers slumber for up to seven months, living off their fat until spring.
Appearance: Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are chipmunk-sized (but skinnier) with yellowish-tan fur and stripes on their backs. Franklin’s ground squirrels are slightly larger and have grayish-brown fur.
Sounds: Ground squirrels give a clear, sharp whistle when alarmed.
Home: Thirteen-lined ground squirrels prefer cemeteries, wellgrazed pastures, and areas with short grasses. Franklin’s ground squirrels prefer prairies, roadsides, weedy fencerows, and areas with taller grasses.
Favorite Foods: Grasses, seeds, and insects.
Woodchucks — aka groundhogs — are big-league burrowers. They dig an extensive network of tunnels and chambers in which to sleep, hide, and raise their babies. They’re so good at digging, they may finish a small burrow in a single day. When woodchucks move out of their burrows, other animals move in. Foxes, weasels, badgers, skunks, rabbits, and opossums all take shelter in woodchuck burrows — sometimes while the woodchuck is still living there.
Appearance: Woodchucks are Missouri’s largest, chubbiest squirrels. They have grayish-brown fur, broad heads, blunt noses, and short, bushy tails.
Sounds: When alarmed, woodchucks give a loud, shrill whistle. That’s why some people call them “whistle pigs.”
Home: Woodchucks build their burrows at woodland edges, in fencerows, and along brushy stream banks. The main entrance to the burrow is usually under a tree stump or rock and has a big pile of fresh dirt around it.
Favorite Foods: Woodchucks are vegetarians and eat many kinds of plants, fruits, and vegetables.
In the fall, chipmunks have just one thought in their furry little heads: storing enough food for winter. The hardcore hoarders forage on the forest floor, stuffing their cheeks like grocery sacks and then scurrying back to their burrows to unload their treasures. A single chipmunk may pack its winter pantry with enough nuts and acorns to fill nine 2-liter soda bottles.
Chipmunks build a bed on top of this pile of food. In the fall, the bed is near the roof of the nest. But by spring, the hungry ‘munk has eaten most of its stash, and its bed has dropped to the floor.
Appearance: Chipmunks have a flattened tail, reddish-brown fur on their backs, white fur on their bellies, and stripes on their sides and heads.
Sounds: A loud chip is often sung for several minutes at a rate of 130 chips each minute.
Home: Chipmunks prefer the edges of woods rather than deep forests. They build burrows in wooded banks, under fallen trees, or inside rock piles. They also live in stone walls, under shrubs, and inside sheds in cities and towns.
Favorite Foods: Mostly nuts, seeds, and berries but sometimes insects
Tree squirrels use their long bushy tails for balance when scampering from branch to branch. When it’s sunny, they curl their tails over their heads for shade. When it’s rainy, they use their tails like umbrellas. When it’s cold, they wrap their tails around themselves like blankets. If a squirrel slips off a branch, it uses its tail like a parachute to slow its fall. And if a squirrel is angry or alarmed, it flicks its tail to warn other squirrels. You might say that tree squirrels have really talented tails!
Appearance: Gray squirrels have grayish-brown fur on their backs and white fur on their bellies. Fox squirrels are slightly larger and have reddish-brown fur.
Sounds: Tree squirrels are chatterboxes and make many different sounds. When angry or alarmed, they give a cherk, cherk, cherk call.
Home: Gray and fox squirrels live wherever large nut trees are found. They make leafy nests in tree holes and on branches.
Favorite Foods: Acorns, nuts, corn, berries, insects, and bird eggs.
At night, while gray and fox squirrels are curled in their nests dreaming of acorns, flying squirrels dive through the dark, gathering the real thing. To glide, this tiny forest flyer climbs to a high perch and then plunges spread-eagle into thin air. Wheee! Draped between the squirrelly skydiver’s legs is a flap of skin that billows like a furry parachute. By changing the slack in this flap and steering with its long, flat tail, the squirrel can swoop around branches and sail safely to its destination.
Appearance: Flying squirrels are chipmunk-sized with a mouselike face, huge eyes, long whiskers, and loose folds of skin between their front and back legs. Their fur is brownish-gray on the back and white on the belly.
Sounds: A high-pitched tseet is the most common call, but flying squirrels also squeal when angry and chirp when content.
Home: Flying squirrels prefer dense oak-hickory forests near water but also live in cities where nut trees are thick. They nest in small tree cavities, often made by woodpeckers, usually 20 to 30 feet above the ground.
Favorite Foods: Acorns, hickory nuts, fruits, insects, and bird eggs.
Angie Daly Morfeld
Nichole LeClair Terrill