Article by Elizabeth Trickey, photos courtesy of Elizabeth Trickey and Jennifer Howard
I think nature gave our planet chipmunks for the sole purpose of entertaining humans. Cute, inquisitive, bold, non-threatening, easily distinguished, and sometimes even friendly. Yes, our little furry friends do bring many of us a multitude of joy!
In Ontario, there are 2 types of chipmunk – the Eastern and the Least. Telling them apart is sometimes difficult, but the Eastern is larger and the Least has a bushier tail. We mostly see the Eastern species in our suburban and rural communities, so let’s look at the life of the Eastern chippies that we love to watch.
Identifying chipmunks is quite easy. They are very small, around 5 inches long, not including their tails which are fuzzy and thin, varying in length from 2-5 inches. For all you euchre and poker players reading this, chipmunks weigh about the same as a deck of cards. Of course, the most obvious marker of chipmunks is the 9 stripes down their backs – 5 dark brown ones, 2 medium brown, and 2 cream stripes. The rest of the fur on their bodies is a reddish brown, with a cream coloured underside and a darker brown tail.
Chippies have very long, thin fingers and toes, with 4 on the forepaws and 5 on their rear paws. Their sharp nails are needed to dig very long, deep tunnels, and to climb trees. They have tiny ears, a short snout, and dark eyes that are rimmed with cream coloured fur. Their faces are small, but don’t let that deceive you. These critters have expandable cheeks that have an incredible capacity!
These cheeks can be stretched to 3 times the size of their heads, and hold up to 160 acorns! OK, I’ve never seen that, but apparently researchers have, so who am I to argue with that? The cheek pouches are like grocery bags, holding quite a large amount of food at one time, to take home after shopping. And there are several reasons for this. One is that these animals are very small, being prey to many predators.
They need to quickly do their shopping, then rush home to eat because having their dinner in the open is asking for trouble. As well, chipmunks stay in their burrows all winter long, so need to pick up and store food to eat during those cold months. Emptying the grocery bag cheeks is a simple matter of squeezing the cheeks with their forepaws.
Images by Elizabeth Trickey
There is also another way that these cheek pouches come in handy. Ever watch “The Great Escape”? Love that movie. Remember how they got rid of the soil that they excavated from the tunnels? Well, I think those men learned from chipmunks! You see, chipmunks burrow into the ground, scratching through the soil to build a home. They cram the excavated soil into their cheek pouches, then take it out to the surface! Too bad Charles Bronson didn’t have cheek pouches – he needed to scrounge for buckets!
Chipmunks are solitary animals that live alone, underground, in tunnels that are from 10-30 feet long, with more than one exit. They can be found in forests and suburban developments where there is plenty of ground cover such a brush piles, rocks and foliage to hide from predators. Having a body of water in the vicinity is also a good idea since these animals are great swimmers and can make a quick get-away by water. Their homes have different areas for different purposes – a storage area for food, a nursery for the newborns, sleeping quarters, and possibly a toilet area. Researchers disagree with whether or not there is a bathroom in those dens, and the chipmunks aren’t talking….
Although chipmunks live alone, this species is part of a larger community, called a “scurry”, that takes care of each other by warning about predators. Chipmunks do have a number of different vocalizations, used for different reasons. Some chips are high-pitched for when predators on the ground are in the area. When there are aerial predators, the chips are made at a lower pitch and they are more of a clucking sound. Then there is the trill which is a very fast, high-quivering chip which is made when a predator is chasing the unfortunate chippy. Other sounds include croaks and chirps which you might hear in the spring when love is in the air, and the hunt is on for a suitable mate. With all these different vocalizations, chipmunks make great singers – you do remember Alvin, Simon, and Theodore’s famous recording, right?
For the Eastern chipmunk, mating takes place in April and sometimes, again, in August. The males, called “bucks”, get that urge a couple of weeks before the females, and they set out on a hunt for fertile chippies to court. The males may mate with several different females, then, their job done, they head off into the sunset.
Gestation is only about a month long, after which a litter of 3-6 itty-bitty babies, called “kits” or “pups”, are born weighing in at 3 grams, which is the weight of a penny. They have no fur, and their ears and eyes are closed. After 10 days, fur starts to appear and within a month they are able to see and hear. Momma, called a “doe”, is the sole caretaker for 2 months, feeding, protecting, and teaching them the fine art of foraging and avoiding predators. Once the kits are able to cope on their own, usually at 2-3 months of age, they head off to seek their fortune, building their own burrows and gathering food for the cold months ahead. By the following summer, they are ready to begin having babies of their own. Nature decides how many kits will be born – food availability, the length of the winter, and living conditions all have an impact on numbers.
Chipmunks are diurnal (daytime) critters which is why we are so familiar with them. They tend to need lots of sleep, up to 15 hours each day, and often take a siesta in the early afternoons. Chippies are omnivores that forage for foods such as fruit, mushrooms, nuts, bulbs, seeds, insects, bird eggs, and worms. And many of my newly planted flowers….
The lifespan of chipmunks is only 3 years in the wild. They have many predators such as coyotes, owls, snakes, raccoons, bobcats, hawks, weasels, foxes, and pet cats and dogs, which makes a long life for this species unlikely. Being as small and agile as they are, the best defence against predators is to stay close to home and scamper away quickly when danger is about!
It doesn’t take long for chipmunks to store up enough food for the winter. Just a couple of days of filling their cheeks full of food is enough to get them through the cold months. These little charmers stay at home all winter long, mostly sleeping away the time, occasionally waking to eat. They go into a state of torpor where their hearts beat very slowly, from a usual 350 beats per minute to just 4 beats, and their body temperature cools down to just above freezing. Many wild animals bulk up for the winter and live off their fat, but chipmunks don’t. That’s why they have to wake every week or so to have a bite to eat.
All critters in our world have a necessary job to do to keep our planet healthy. Chipmunks are responsible for spreading seeds throughout the forest and other green areas to ensure we always have the plants and trees that we need to survive. They also help to keep certain trees, especially pines, from taking over forests by eating those seeds. So these cuties do have other important jobs besides keeping humans entertained!
Thankfully, chipmunks are not at all endangered, so they don’t need global protection.
But they do need help when they fall prey to our pet cats and dogs. Wild animals will kill chippies for food; that is part of nature’s balance. But our pets don’t tend to attack these animals for that reason, and too often, Procyon is brought injured ones that have been hurt by dogs and cats.
The following images are courtesy of Jennifer Howard