Photo by Joan Herrmann
This chipmunk is putting a peanut in its cheek pouch.
by Joan Hermann
Whereiwander…Some of the adjectives used when describing an eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) might be cute, sweet, or charming, and that’s because they are. They seem to be in constant motion, whether looking, finding, pouching food or scolding and warning one another. Autumn seems to be their busy month, particularly when they are harvesting nuts and berries. They are consummate cachers. Their food caching and consumption is very diverse, everything from seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, mushrooms, garden bulbs, beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, mice, slugs, frogs, newts and bird’s eggs. I even watched one consume a small snake.
As I write this column I am filled with memories of Roger. Roger was the name our grandchildren gave to an eastern chipmunk that lived in the rock walled garden next to our driveway. He was a treasured friend for about seven years, which is a long life for a chipmunk; they usually live about two to four years. Roger was easy to recognize because he was missing a small portion of his left ear, which he no doubt lost in a battle. He entertained all of our grandchildren when they spent summer vacations with us. Without so much as a bit of coaxing he learned to run up onto their laps, as they sat on the grass, to retrieve unsalted peanuts. He could take three peanuts each time by stuffing one into each cheek pouch and the third between his teeth. It didn’t take long for his siblings, mate and then his offspring to take advantage of these fine offerings, and giggles and laughter filled the morning air, until that day’s supply ran out. It was Roger that I saw eating a baby snake, when I drove by the walled garden. I learned a lot about their diets by watching Roger and his neighbors. It was while watching him I learned what great tree climbers they are, and how his continual chipping warned others when a hawk or other predator was near the property. It was extremely sad that spring when we waited, but didn’t have the privilege of Roger’s presence anymore, gone, but truly not forgotten.
The scientific name Tamias means striped and striatus means storer. Of the twenty plus chipmunks in North America only the eastern chipmunk resides in the Adirondacks and for that matter in the East. Their coloring is a reddish tan and they have a long black stripe running down their back. On either side of the long black stripe there is a shorter black stripe, then a short white stripe and another short black stripe. Their body length is about five to six inches and their tails are about three to four inches. They weigh approximately four ounces and run with their tails up straight.
They live in burrows, which are quite complex, and include many rooms. Theses rooms are for nesting, resting, toileting, and for caching food. The burrows may extend down three feet and tunnels may be as long as thirty feet. The nesting room is usually ten inches in diameter and contains a food supply of nonperishable food. The hole to the burrow is round, and about one and one half inches to two inches in diameter. There will be no debris or dirt around the entry hole.
Breeding begins in spring between February and April and again in June to July. The young are born about one month after breeding. The courtship includes nose touching and licking, with rapid tail movements signaling acceptance. The babies are born blind and hairless. There will be four to five in an average litter. At the end of two weeks the babies will be fuzzy, at three weeks they can hear and at four weeks they can see and are also weaned. At six weeks they begin to leave the burrow and will resemble the adults, but are only two-thirds of the adults’ size and their tails are quite thin.
The siblings interact with one another, playing and exploring. After two months the mother no longer allows them to enter her burrow and they are now on their own. They will either have to find a vacated burrow or begin making their own burrow in a new area.
Eastern chipmunks are members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae) and the order of (Rodentia) or rodents. Like all rodents they have a pair of continually growing upper and lower incisors in the front jaws. Gnawing on hard nuts and seeds leaves the enamel edge sharp as a blade and wears away the softer dentine in the back of the tooth.
They are not true hibernators but will generally not be seen for several months in the winter. If we have a January thaw I will occasionally see one or two coming onto the balcony to retrieve some sunflower seeds or unsalted peanuts. While wintering in their burrows they may go through several cycles of semi torpidity, in which their body temperatures and breathing is greatly decreased, to full torpidity and then back to an alternate to a state of activity at which time they will eat and eliminate wastes all the while staying in the burrow the entire time.
The amount of food cached in the burrow is amazing, considering the size of this tiny animal. The naturalist John Burroughs once noted that in three days a single chipmunk stored five quarts of hickory nuts, two quarts of chestnuts and a quantity of shelled corn, which in all was a bushel of food. I can attest to those amounts as the barrels of sunflower seeds and unsalted peanuts diminish throughout the spring, summer and fall. It is sometime expensive, but provides great enjoyment and photo opportunities.