Chipmunk are tiny and cute, easy to identify by their small body with white, black and brown stripes, short legs and lively behavior. They’re usually seen scampering around on the ground, although they also can climb trees. Their preferred habitat is one with many places to dash into for safely: open woods with fallen logs and stumps, forest edges, brushlands and rocks. They also live in city parks, woodland areas and along fencerows. Yards, too, where they’re sometimes welcome and sometimes not, because of their penchant for nibbling in vegetable gardens.
Members of the squirrel family, Sciuridae, there are 25 species, plus many subspecies, and all but one (the Siberian Chipmunk, of Asia) inhabit North America.
The largest is the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias stratus), only 11 inches long (28 centimeters), including the tail, and weighing up to 4.4 ounces (125 grams). They inhabit the eastern half of North America. The Least Chipmunk (Tamias minibus), found in western states and across Canada, is the smallest, at only 7.2 to 8.5 inches long (18.5 to 21.6 centimeters), including the tail, and weighing just 1.1 to 1.8 ounces (32 to 50 grams).
Chipmunks chatter to communicate, with loud “chip” and soft “cuk-cuk-cuk” sounds. Listen to their sounds They also communicate with body language, such as flattening their ears and raising their tail hair.
Chipmunks are omnivores and include in their diet nuts, seeds, fruits and buds, grass, mushrooms, insects, snails, small frogs and snakes, young mice, worms and bird eggs. They’re known for packing, to a remarkable extent, food items in their cheek pouches for eating later. Beginning in the fall, they store food in their burrows for the winter ahead.
Chipmunks hibernate in winter. They don’t store body fat, however, like bears, who can sleep for very long periods of time. Instead, they awaken every few days to eat a few bites from their cache of food. They also use that time to urinate and defecate, but in a separate chamber — they keep their burrows, up to 10 feet long, with many entrances, very clean. During hibernation, their body temperature drops from around 94 degrees F (34.4 C) to as low as 40 F (4 C).
Chipmunks are solitary, except during mating season. Some species mate in early spring and again in early summer, while others mate only once a year. The gestation period is 30 days. Litter sizes vary. For instance, the Least Chipmunk gives birth to two to eight young (pups) and the Eastern Chipmunk has three to five. At birth, pups are hairless, blind and about the size of a bumblebee. They remain in the burrow for about six weeks. By eight weeks, they’re weaned and on their own.
The average life span is two to three years in the wild. Predators include hawks, owls, foxes, Raccoons, snakes, weasels and house cats.
Chipmunks are beneficial because their poo carries the seeds and spores of plants they’ve eaten. As they move about, pooping here and there, they spread the seeds.
*top photo: Eastern Chipmunk. (Gilles Gonthier / Flickr; cc by 2.0)