For the last several years, we’ve been blessed with the company of adorable creatures on our back porch. In addition to the usual sparrows, cardinals, and hummingbirds, a wonderful slew of chipmunks visits to munch on birdseed.
My childhood in Ohio did not feature many chipmunks, but the summers my family spent in the mountainous regions of Maine produced fond memories of the small critters. We left peanuts on the steps of our cabin, hoping the chipmunks would arrive to stuff their expandable cheeks. One summer, we gained their trust sufficiently for them to grab peanuts as we watched. When the chipmunks arrived on our porch, I was flooded with wonderful visions of nature past.
This year, the first chipmunk showed up on February 28, which seems early. Let’s learn a bit about these charming animals.
Members of the Order Rodentia, chipmunks are some of the most distinctive tiny creatures in the wild. Their stripes immediately identify them, with coloration ranging from white to tan to dark brown. Twenty-five species exist among three genera (though some scientists group them into one genus). All but one species lives in North America. The Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), the one that lives in my memories, populates one genus on its own and lives across the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast United States, as well as Canada. Twenty-three species stretch across the Western United States (genus Neotamias). The lone non-continental species shows up in Siberia (Eutamias sibiricus)!
Since most of the world’s species reside in North America, it’s no surprise that the origin of the word likely arises from a Native American language. Etymologists believe the original word may have been spelled “chitmunk,” which likely arrived from the Odawa term jidmoonh, meaning “red squirrel.” Across the years, the word evolved into other forms, including “chipmuck” and “chipminck.” By the early 1800s, “chipmonk” and “chipmunk” arrived. The animals make a distinct “chip” sound, which likely elicits all these monikers. In Maine, we called the animal Chippy. When I was young, I thought Chippy was the same creature each year. Now, of course, I realize we met many Chippys.
Other common nicknames for a chipmunk include “striped squirrels,” “timber tigers,” and “minibears.” Not sure I understand the latter! John James Audubon included a lithograph of the chipmunk in Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, where he called them “ground squirrels” or “hackees.” Though chipmunks are distinct from common squirrels, both critters belong to the same family, Sciuridae.
Though chipmunks love to devour nuts and seeds, they are actually omnivores. Ruining my virtuous image, if food is scarce, they sometimes consume insects, worms, small frogs, bird eggs, and even baby birds. In addition to gathering nutrition from seeds, chipmunks also function as an important seed distributor in forests. More virtuous.
These rodents create burrows that can stretch up to 30 feet in length. The dens are somewhat complex, with multiple concealed openings and rooms with specific purposes. Sleeping areas are kept free of debris and refuse. One room serves as the receptacle for body waste. And, of course, there’s the pantry. Chipmunks have expandable cheeks into which they can jam food to take back to their burrows to save for later. An individual can store thousands of nuts!
The Eastern chipmunk stocks up on food in the late fall, as they hibernate. Western chipmunks still store food, but they do not hibernate. The rodents usually produce two litters each year. Four to five baby chipmunks emerge per mating pair in early spring and again in early summer. The typical individual survives about three years in the wild, though that number can jump as high as nine in captivity.
Though the Eastern chipmunk prefers to stick to deciduous forests and suburban areas with plenty of vegetation and cover, the Western chipmunk sometimes enjoys hitting the mountains.
In 2018, when my wife and I summited Mount Ellinor, just south of Olympic National Park, what I believe to be the happiest moment of her entire life transpired thanks to a chipmunk. She is a “lose your mind” animal lover. The tinier and cuter, the better, though all our adored. As we ate lunch on the peak, enterprising timber tigers approached us, looking for a treat.
When the handout did not immediately arrive, these glorious creatures took one look at the two of us and recognized immediately who the sap is!
Fortunately, the chipmunk begged long enough for me to produce a camera!
My wife held her reaction, sensing the greatness of the moment. When the furry rodent departed, a screech of delight echoed down the walls of the mountain. The happiness that emerged from her was palpable and, to this date, has not been replicated.
Now that I think of it, few wild animals have created as many wonderful memories for me as the chipmunk. Hopefully, they remain stalwarts on the back porch!