Chipmunks, those little critters with black-and-brown strips, tiny bodies and sprightly behavior are pretty cute. They entertain us with their activities, chattering and scampering around. We usually see them on the ground, but they can climb trees when they want to.
Chipmunks are rodents belonging to the squirrel family, Sciuridae. There are 25 species, plus many subspecies, and all but one (the Siberian Chipmunk, of Asia) inhabit North America. Read about Fox and Gray squirrels
Their preferred habitat is one 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 pretty lawns.
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 (18.5 to 21.6 centimeters) long, including the tail. They weigh just 1.1 to 1.8 ounces (32 to 50 grams).
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 amazing 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. 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.
Chipmunks hibernate in winter, sort of. They don’t put on body fat, like bears, which 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, 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 lifespan 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)