Speaking of Nature: A familiar face from a different perspective

  • It may come as a surprise to learn that chipmunks are excellent climbers. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 8/2/2022 6:27:41 PM
Modified: 8/2/2022 6:24:32 PM

And now for something completely different. I think it is safe to say that we are all familiar with the eastern chipmunk (Tamiasstriatus). This is the small, striped rodent that can be found living around homes and gardens as well as in the deep forests across the eastern United States. A member of the rodent Order, this is a classic small mammal that fits into the ecological niche of generalist omnivore. The chipmunk is clearly able to specialize in feeding on nuts with hard shells, but it will also eat insects, worms, mushrooms and even the occasional bird egg.

A chipmunk will dig a burrow that has several chambers and several exits. Many of the exits may be temporarily plugged up, but there is generally a “main” entrance and then, some distance away, there is what is known as a “plunge hole.” This is an entrance that descends almost straight down and it is clearly used for a quick getaway in case a predator is near. This is particularly important because hawks, owls, snakes, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, weasels, bobcats, domestic cats and even domestic dogs will eat them. You need a good exit strategy with so many enemies about.

The many chambers of the burrow have different roles as well. One chamber is for sleeping, other chambers serve as larders for the storage of food. These are all connected by a series of tunnels and there are even a few tunnels that plunge down to greater depths that act as drainage pipes. This makes sense because you don’t want your cozy bedchamber or your food storage areas to become flooded.

Chipmunks live solitary lives and they will defend their homes from intrusions by any other chipmunks. The only exceptions to this rule come during the breeding season when males and females “cavort” and later when the females give birth to litters of 3 to 5 babies. The first litter will generally be born sometime between February and April, while the second litter will be born between June and August. Baby chipmunks nurse for 6 to 8 weeks, but they are then quickly “shown the door” once they are weaned.

Then the little chipmunks have to go out into the world, dig burrows of their own and start getting ready for the approaching winter. Fruits, mushrooms, insects and worms are all good foods to keep them going during the summer, but nuts and seeds are the main source of food that will keep them alive during the winter. Chipmunks possess an interesting adaptation to help them collect and carry many small objects at one time – those amazing cheek pouches. Anyone with a bird feeder is likely to be quite familiar with the amazing abilities of chipmunks to vacuum up birdseed and run off with a head that is more than twice its normal size.

What might not be so familiar is the fact that chipmunks are excellent tree climbers. We often see them strictly as ground-based animals, but they are very comfortable looking for food up in trees as well. In fact, it is thought that the name “chipmunk” comes from the language of the Ojibwe people and translates as, “one who descends trees headlong.” This being said, I am always surprised when I encounter a chipmunk in a tree. During one of my recent visits to a state park I was fortunate to have a very cooperative chipmunk pose for a photo while perched on a broken branch about 20 feet off the ground. This definitely falls into the category of “different.”

So, I wish you all a Happy August! The lazy days of summer lay wide open before us and there is ample opportunity for hiking, canoeing, kayaking, camping, or just relaxing by the grill or by the pool. I am going to try to keep exploring the concept of “different” for the rest of the month, but if something truly spectacular emerges I may have to call an audible and go in another direction. We never really know what is going to happen next, which is what makes life so much fun.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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