Chipmunks are just pretty cute. Tiny and lively, they’re entertaining to watch, with their scampering around, chattering, and activities. They’re usually seen on the ground, but when they have a mind to, they can also climb trees. North America can pretty much call them its own. There are 25 species, plus many subspecies, and only one (the Siberian Chipmunk, of Asia) lives elsewhere.
Chipmunks are rodents in the squirrel family, Sciuridae. They’re 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. Their genus name, Tamias, is Greek for “treasurer,” “steward,” or “housekeeper,” a reference to their habit of collecting and storing seeds for the winter.
The largest chipmunk is the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias stratus), only 11 inches long (28 cm), including the tail, and weighing up to 4.4 ounces (125 g). 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 (18.5 to 21.6 cm) long, including the tail. They weigh just 1.1 to 1.8 ounces (32 to 50 g).
Chipmunks have striped hair, large, dark eyes, perky upright ears, and short legs. A notable feature is their cheek pouches. There are two, one located on each side of their head between their jaw and cheek. The pouches can stretch to hold an incredible amount of food, almost as large as the chipmunk’s body, itself. The food is transported to their burrow, to be stored for eating later on.
Chipmunks chatter to communicate, with loud “chip” and soft “cuk-cuk-cuk” sounds. They also communicate with body language, such as flattening their ears and raising their tail hair. Listen to their sounds
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 lifespan is two to three years in the wild.
Chipmunks hibernate in the winter, sort of. They don’t put on body fat, 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, which are up to 10 feet long (3 m), 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 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.
Chipmunks prefer a habitat with many places to dash into for safety: 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 and digging burrows under lawns.
Predators include hawks, owls, foxes, Raccoons, snakes, weasels and house cats.
*top photo: Eastern Chipmunk. (Gilles Gonthier / Flickr; cc by 2.0)