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Nature Notes: Chipmunk

Ed Robinson
July 28, 2014
Curt Chipman photo
Curt Chipman photo

You have to love the internet for offering all kinds of fascinating, but sometimes useless, information. For instance, when doing my research I discovered that our favorite little rodents love tomato juice, waiting for the fruit to ripen and then biting the bottom to steal a drink -an endearing trick unless it is your tomato patch they are raiding! In another link, “Chipmunk” is described as “a fast and reliable cross-platform interpreter for the BASIC Programming Language.” If you understand that, you have been spending entirely too much time indoors. Get outdoors and spend some time with the real thing!

Scientists have identified 25 species of chipmunks, all but one living in North America. The name “chipmunk” derives from the name the Ottawa tribe used for the creature, “chitmunk.” Down the years, many names have been used in English. The august John James Audubon, in his book Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, included a lithograph of a chipmunk labeled the “chipping squirrel or hackee.” My favorite slang name is “timber tiger,” and I came upon a short video online showing a chipmunk giving a house cat far more than the cat bargained for when he went hunting!

By any name, chipmunks are fast, lively little characters who entertain us with their antics. How often have you chuckled to see one of these bright fellows zipping back and forth to his burrow with his cheeks stuffed full of acorns (or the peanuts you should not have been feeding him!)? With glossy black eyes, bushy tails and a coat of contrasting stripes in reddish browns, grays, tans and white, it is easy to fall for a chipmunk (unless he and his family have taken up residence in your attic). Recognizing their photogenicity, Hollywood has made chipmunks the stars of many movies and cartoon shows.

Our Eastern chipmunks range from seven to 11 inches tall, with a tail between three and five inches long. They only weigh between four and five ounces, probably because they burn so many calories dashing around in search of food. Full omnivores, chipmunks are known to enjoy grass, shoots, nuts, seeds, fungi, fruits, grains and your garden vegetables. They will also eat insects, worms, small frogs, bird eggs and nestlings. They prefer to hunt under the cover of trees, rocks and brush hoping to avoid aggressive predators such as raptors, foxes, coyotes and large snakes. With so many enemies, the average life span of chipmunks in the wild is only two to three years, and up to nine years in captivity.

Chipmunks are independent of each other most of the year, but mate in the spring. The female gives birth, after a gestation period of 30 days, to a litter of two to eight young. Mating may occur twice during the season, to increase the odds of survival. The female will use a ground burrow or nest in rocks, a tree, a log or thick brush for protection, caring for the babies over two months before they must fend for themselves. Late summer and autumn finds chipmunks hard at work gathering and storing food for winter. While chipmunks hibernate, they remain sufficiently wakeful to snack on their food reserves to make it through the long winter months.

Beyond providing entertainment for us in the forest or our backyards, chipmunks play important roles in nature. Most obvious is their habit of hoarding nuts and seeds in the ground, thereby establishing many new seedlings. They also spread the spores of some fungi, which pass through the chipmunk’s digestive system to be deposited on new ground. Chipmunks construct sizable ground burrows, up to 10 feet in length, which may later be used by other species without the ability to excavate their own homes.

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