It’s that time of year when our wild creatures are beginning to emerge from hibernation. And with this winter’s mild temperatures, some of them are emerging a bit earlier than usual. Even as I write this article, chipmunks are scampering around my yard – a first for March 1st in these parts anyway. But having said that, during the winter the chipmunk may enter long periods of torpor but it does not truly hibernate.
The Eastern Chipmunk is a small, striped rodent that is common in deciduous woodlands and urban parks throughout the eastern United States and southern Canada. This smallest member of the squirrel family typically grows to 10 inches long including its tail, and weighs from 6 to 8 ounces. The chipmunk is easily identified by its short bushy tail and the five light and dark stripes that run along its predominately brown back.
The word chipmunk is derived from the Ottawa language and translates as “one who descends trees head first”. But even though it spends some of its time foraging in trees, it nests and hibernates in an extensive underground network of tunnels, which often have more than one entrance. When digging a burrow, the chipmunk carries any excavated soil away in its cheek pouches to another location where it is deposited. By doing so, mounds of freshly excavated soil do not call attention to the location of its den. The chipmunk also camouflages the entrance with leaves and litter from the forest floor in order to make it harder to see.
The chipmunk spends most of its day foraging and has a preference for bulbs, fruits, nuts, seeds, insects, and even bird eggs. It stockpiles food in a pantry chamber within its burrow by carrying items there in its cheek pouches. It’s especially comical to see a chipmunk’s cheeks stuffed with acorns as it works nonstop to fill its larder in the fall. According to National Geographic, a chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns per day.
Although chipmunks are often seen together, they do not socialize in groups. Walt Disney accurately portrayed his Chip ‘n Dale animated cartoon characters when he showed them constantly bickering and chasing each other around. I have often watched the same behavior in the woods as one chipmunk chases another away from its food source or den opening. The only time the sexes associate is when mating, which occurs twice a year. Litters consist of four to five babies.
The chipmunk can be a curious critter as well. Whenever I set up to photograph wildlife in the woods, the chipmunk is the first animal to appear. They chatter at me when I’m doing yard work and they come into my garage and snoop around any time I leave the overhead doors open. I tried turning on a radio to keep them out until I realized that they probably come in to listen to the music. And they can be mischievous as well. They’ve eaten all of my wife’s flower bulbs; they’ve rearranged things on my workbench; and they’ve chewed their way into the plastic containers that store my birdseed. And now, after four months of respite, here they come again!