The Industrious Eastern Chipmunk
I visited my grandparent’s old place in New Hampshire this past weekend to tend to the flower gardens and lawn. The tranquility of a glorious early fall day was interrupted by the constant staccato chip, chip, chip call of several resident chipmunks. I lost count of the seemingly perpetual calls and marveled at the number of chipmunks making the hillside property their home. We’ve had chipmunks on the property for many years, but this year there seems to be an abundance of the small playful brown and striped rodents.
Early fall is the time of year when the population of little chipmunks is at its peak. The young have left the care of the adults, family groups have separated, and the seemingly constant territorial calls are saying “keep away no trespassing.” There are many excellent hiding places for chipmunks, and they use old stonewalls lining the property to their advantage. They scamper between rocks, and below the heavy stones the industrious little animal makes its home in an intricate series of tunnels below the frost line of the earth. I have found the perfectly round, small entrance hole at the base of a wall.
Our resident chipmunks spend the summer and fall running about gathering up seeds and nuts and storing them in their food storage chambers. With tails held high, they scamper over rocks and lawn, suddenly stopping to check for danger, then off again in boundless energy. On our property are maple, cherry, hickory and oak trees, which provide plenty of readily available food. I also see them below the bird feeder happily gleaning fallen seeds.
Chipmunks don’t fully hibernate and can’t store enough body fat to see them through the winter without nourishment. They go into a semi-hibernating state, or torpor, to reduce their body temperature and metabolic rate. This resting period usually begins in late October. They will awaken from time to time to feed on seeds or nuts stored in the food chamber before going back to sleep. On some warm winter days they may come outside for brief periods of time.
Eastern chipmunks are found throughout the eastern United States, west to the Mississippi River and in southeastern Canada. Each is reddish brown in color with a single black stripe running down the center of its back. A white stripe between two black stripes runs down each side of its body from the neck to the base of the tail. A chipmunk has a white underside and a white stripe above and below its eyes. Chipmunks range in size from 8 to 10 inches long, including the tail, and weigh between two to five ounces. There is no difference in appearance between males and females.
Our region provides the ideal habitat for chipmunks, as they prefer deciduous forests, shrub habitat, forest edges and suburban and urban areas where there is abundant cover to protect from predators. Chipmunks are omnivores, feeding on both plants and animals, and their diet consists of seeds, nuts, berries, fruits, flowers, mushrooms, insects, worms, snails, frogs, bird eggs and even some small birds. They can hold an enormous amount of food in their cheek pouches, which can stretch to three times the size of their head.
Chipmunks reach sexual maturity in about one year and can mate twice a year from February to April and again from June to August. Males and females come together only to mate and the females raise their young alone. After a gestation period of 31 days, they give birth to a litter of two to six young with the young remaining underground in the burrow for about six weeks. After approximately eight to 10 weeks, they are fully independent and leave the family group.
Like all small rodents, chipmunks are an important food source for a variety of predators including hawks, snakes, weasels, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, owls and coyotes. House cats also prey on chipmunks.
Chipmunks can climb trees though they prefer to spend their time on the ground or underground in burrows, which can reach 30-feet long and three-feet deep. These burrow systems include nesting chambers and storage rooms for nuts and seeds that provide chipmunks with food throughout the winter. Burrow entrances usually measure two inches in diameter, and they carefully remove fresh dirt from the opening to avoid attracting predators.
We are fortunate to have an abundance of wildlife in our region right in our own backyards, which can provide countless hour of enjoyment to observe and appreciate. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and together we can care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Information for this column was gleaned from the Kaufman Guide to Nature of New England, and the CT DEEP Wildlife fact sheet on Eastern Chipmunks.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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