Feature above is an Eastern Chipmunk by Jennifer Howard
By Elizabeth Trickey
If any of you readers are saying to yourselves – “Hey, I didn’t know there was a special day for chipmunks”….. well, you are right. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start one, here and now! You see, I love watching the little critters, and every spring I look forward to them coming out of their dens to visit with me as I sip my cappuccino in the mornings on my patio. Maybe chipmunks don’t have a special day because everyday is special when they are out and about to entertain us all.
Chipmunks are the smallest member of the squirrel family and there are 24 different types in North America. The ones we tend to see in our yards, here in Ontario, would be the Eastern Chipmunk, although there is a smaller, less common, species called the Least Chipmunk that might be occasionally seen around.
The Albino chipmunks photos above are courtesy of Jennifer Howard.
I will presume that most people know what chipmunks look like, being easy to identify due to the stripes down their backs. Unless, of course, you watched too many Chip and Dale cartoons as a kid. They were chipmunks, yes, but looked more like squirrels with stumpy rabbit tails! So maybe I better provide a brief description of the cute little beggars.
Chipmunks, on average, are about 10” long from nose to tail tip, and weigh about a quarter of a pound, with females being slightly larger than the males. They have short, multi-coloured fur – greys, white, black, browns, cream, and a lovely reddish-brown. The stripes down their backs run from their shoulders to their hips and are in a pattern of black, cream and grey. They actually have 2 different coats of fur – one for summer that is shed in the fall and the other, a lighter colour, for winter. Chipmunk tails are medium-long and fuzzy, but not bushy like squirrel tails, and they are held straight up in the air as they scamper about. They have very long, skinny, dextrous fingers and toes. Their hearing and sight are excellent which helps them to be aware of when predators are a threat.
In folklore, some say that when chipmunks are around, it means there is magic in the air and that something good is about to happen to you. Your chipmunk spirit guide is available to grant you all that you desire. There is also a Chipmunk Totem which symbolizes energy, optimism, and an adventurous spirit. I’d have to say, that about sums up those playful little rodents!
The habitat of chipmunks is quite varied, depending on the species. They live in forests, plains, deserts, mountains, parks, and, thankfully (maybe some people aren’t appreciative…) our backyards. Eastern chipmunks tend to build their homes underground, up to 3 feet deep, with tunnels up to 30 feet long. They make several entrances/exits for safety and have different rooms for sleeping, food storage, and wastes. The sleeping chamber includes natural foliage and fluffy seed heads that will help to keep the chipmunks comfortable and warmer in the winter.
Chipmunks are solitary animals, only getting together with others for mating purposes, though they often live in colonies with overlapping territories. A group of chipmunks is called a scurry, which seems quite appropriate since they are always scampering about! They are diurnal (active during the day), sleep for about 15 hours each day, and have a lifespan of 1-3 years in the wild.
Breeding occurs 1-2 times per year, in the early spring and sometimes in the late summer. Gestation is a period of about 1 month, with 3-5 baby chipmunks, called “kits” or “pups”, per litter. The babies are about 1 inch long and are born blind and hairless. At 10 days old, fur can be seen growing, at 28 days their ears open, and at 32 days their eyes open. Only the mother raises the kits, tending to them in the nest for about 5 weeks. After this time, the young chipmunks begin exploring outside the nest, and by 8-10 weeks old, they are ready to strike out on their own, males tending to leave first. They might start breeding in their first spring, but usually not until the following year.
Chipmunks are omnivores that aren’t at all fussy about what they consume. They eat vegetation such as mushrooms, green leaves, flowers, grass, berries, nuts, seeds and grains as well as insects, baby birds, snails, young mice, worms, frogs and bird eggs. One chippy can gather up to 165 acorns per day! They spend most of their day foraging, sometimes immediately devouring what they find, while other times stuffing their enormous cheek pockets with food and taking it back to the nest to eat at a later time. One researcher counted 60 sunflower seeds in just 1 cheek pouch of a chippy, and found that it could stockpile 8 pounds of food for the winter! Sometimes, though, a chipmunk’s grocery shopping involves raiding another chippy’s stash! They can be sneaky little devils!
These little rodents are, themselves, a tasty treat for many predators. The list is long – fox, raccoon, rat, weasel, mink, snake, coyote, hawk, and even pet dogs and cats all hunt the chipmunk. That’s why they scurry around so fast, getting their food, then quickly retreating back to their homes. In fact, research shows that the amount of food they store in their cheeks is relative to how far away their burrows are. If the chippies are far from home, they try to pack as much food into their cheeks as possible. That way, they need to make fewer trips into the more open areas where they are at risk of predation. If they are closer to home, they don’t mind making several shorter dashes into predator territory, so don’t need to fill the pouches quite so full. As chipmunks move about their territories, they often create routes that allow them to use the cover of brush, trees, and wood piles for safety from predators. If you have them regularly scampering about in your yard, you can often see those routes due to flattened grass.
Chipmunks got their name from the “chip” sound that they often make. They actually have several vocalizations, depending on the situation. And I mean, besides their wonderful singing! Don’t you remember Alvin, Theodore, and Simon? Their first recording sold over 4 million copies in just 7 weeks, and was the #1 song on the Hit Parade for 4 weeks! Yes, there’s more to love about these critters than you realized!
OK, back to the noises chipmunks make. They make 3 sounds: chip, chuck (deeper sound), and a high-pitched trill. These vocalizations are used for different occasions such as when another chipmunk is invading their territory, warnings to others in their colony of predators in the area (“chucks” for aerial predators, “chips” for terrestrial predators, and the longer “trill” to denote a close encounter with a predator), to drive away the kits when they are old enough to live on their own, and for mating. They may even use more than one type of call at a time, and other chippies sometimes join in the chorus of chipping, chucking, and trilling (see, they are singing!).
The only time we see chipmunks in the winter is when the weather goes through a warm spell. Other times, they are curled up in their burrows until springtime. Chipmunks are not like many of the other critters that disappear into dens in the cold months because they don’t put on a lot of extra fat. Instead, they stockpile food to eat throughout the winter. While in their burrows, their bodies go into a state of torpor where their breathing and heart rate slow down, and their body temperature goes very low. A normal chipmunk heart beat of 350 beats per minute can decrease to 4 beats per minute, while its temperature goes from 94°F to 40°F. Scientists are not exactly sure the sequence of events – whether the chippies go into torpor for a week or so, get up to eat, then go back into torpor, or whether they eat their food until it’s depleted, then go into torpor or hibernation. Milder winters mean that chipmunks rouse more throughout the winter, and this doesn’t always work in their favour. Research shows that they have a much lower rate of survival than if they stayed in a torpor state for longer because they use up to 75% less energy in torpor. Global warming will continue to adversely affect not just chippies, but other animals that are used to tucking away for the cold months when there is no food for them to eat.
Not only do chipmunks not like the cold, but they also don’t like the hot weather either. You may have noticed that during the summer they often aren’t seen in the afternoons when the day is at its hottest. And when we have consecutive days with very warm temperatures, we might not see much of them at all. Chipmunks can go into torpor again, to avoid this hot weather, and in this circumstance it is called “estivation”.
Scientists have done some interesting studies on chipmunks. One had to do with how much energy a chipmunk was willing to expend to get food. Toothpicks were glued to seeds so the chippies couldn’t get them into their cheek pouches. The researchers found that they quickly gave up on attempting to get those seeds into their cheeks! Another study looked at whether chipmunks preferred certain colours. This investigation was done in order to find out if there was a colour that could be used in landscaping materials that would either attract the critters or keep them away. Answer? I’m glad I have brown patio furniture and not orange! This study also considered the manufacturing of products that animals might get hurt by ingesting or getting caught in, such as bottle caps and plastic six-pack rings. They should be made in orange, if at all….
For all the chipmunks we see around our neighbourhoods and while on our hikes in the forest, you might be surprised to learn that several species are labelled a “conservation concern”. The red-tailed chipmunk in Alberta and BC is listed as “vulnerable” in some areas of the provinces and “conservation priory” in other areas, in part due to habitat loss. Many parts of North America have an abundance of chipmunks, and their numbers don’t vary much, though some areas have experienced declines and even total disappearances. Besides being caught by predators, chippies can get seriously hurt or killed when fighting amongst themselves – males when competing for females during breeding, females protecting their young, and whenever they have to defend their burrow and food stores. And, of course, there are those that die due to car traffic, disease, and in certain habitats, food shortages.
So what are chipmunks good for besides providing immense entertainment as they forage for food, stuffing their expandable cheeks like reusable grocery bags? They are a part of the food chain, providing sustenance for many predators. But the most important job they have in nature is to aerate the soil through tunnelling, and to spread, through their faeces, seeds and mycorrhizal fungi. Sure, that’s probably a new term for you, but it most likely isn’t something new to see, if you grow plants or enjoy hiking in the forest. Mycorrhizal fungi are often seen as those mushroom clumps that are on the woodland floor. Their roots grow around the root systems of trees and plants, providing water and a better ability to absorb ground nutrients. These fungi were instrumental in Earth’s ability to first host plants and are necessary for their continued growth. So you can see how important a chipmunk’s job is.
Not everybody is enthralled with chipmunks, and those of us who do love them sometimes get frustrated when they dig up plants or chew on our favourite flowers. What can we do? Well, there are some scents they do not like – cinnamon, eucalyptus, citrus, moth balls, Irish Spring soap, garlic, peppermint, and coffee grounds. Chippies do have a very good sense of smell, so putting one of these items around your plants might do the trick of keeping them away.
Chipmunks do provide tremendous pleasure for many people, especially since they are very friendly and fun to watch. They are a photographer’s dream as they pose for pictures, even photobombing some! They are bold and industrious, enjoyed by many homeowners, hikers, and campers.
If you can’t get enough of these funny, perky critters, there are ways to make your yard more attractive to them. You can plant trees and shrubs that provide a natural food source for them, such as fruit and seeds. You can also make sure that you provide enough ground cover, such as rock piles, logs, and brush, where they can find shelter from predators.
It’s that time of year to begin enjoying chipmunk antics, so I think I’ll just head out to my patio now. So far, I have only seen one little fella who is out of his burrow, but I’m sure there will be plenty more soon enough!
The photos below show a Doctor performing an operation to remove Botfly from a Chipmunk bought into Procyon Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre and are courtesy of Jennifer Howard.
Chipmunk photos below are courtesy of Jennifer Howard.