The Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus striatus) is the familiar striped ground squirrel we encounter on many of our woodland walks. Since they will soon become less common, going into torpor and sleeping for large parts of the winter, I thought I'd write about them now. They are not true hibernators, waking every few weeks to feed on warmer winter days, but most are hidden in their underground burrows by December.
As mentioned earlier, these are ground squirrels, the only members of the subgenus Tamias and having 2 fewer teeth than other chipmunk species. Almost all chipmunk species are found in North America, the only exception I'm aware of being the Siberian Chipmunk. The sole local representative we have is the Eastern Chipmunk. Being squirrels, they all can climb, though they prefer to stay on or under the ground. I've seen as many as 4 at the same time up in a single Bird Cherry tree picking fruits however. The photo below shows one in the low branches of a shrub.
|An Eastern Chipmunk stares at me from its tree perch.
These are small rodents, usually under 10 inches including the tail, and weighing under 5 ounces. Eastern Chipmunks are strictly diurnal and are extremely active during their waking hours. They are also quite vocal, chipping, chirping and otherwise sounding off in the woods. Some think they're called chipmunks because of the chipping sounds they make, but it is more likely that their common name is derived from either Ottawa or Ojibwe words that were corrupted to "chipmunk." Their Native American Indian name is supposed to mean "one who descends trees headfirst."
Their stripes are a distinguishing feature and there are several legends concerning how they got them. My favorite is a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tale relating how the chipmunk, never lacking for something to say, challenged a cocky black bear. The bear was proud and thought there was nothing he could not do, so the chipmunk challenged him to keep the sun from rising. When the bear failed to do so, the chipmunk loudly chattered with mirth and told all the other animals of its failure. The bear was so angered that it pinned the chipmunk under its paw, proclaiming that though perhaps it couldn't stop the sun, it could keep the chipmunk from ever seeing another sunrise. The chipmunk begged for a chance to say a last prayer, if only it could get a bit of breath to do so. When the bear raised its paw ever so slightly, the chipmunk ran for its burrow. The bear was quick enough for one last swipe with its claws, leaving 3 striped scars forever on the chipmunk's back.
Because Eastern Chipmunks are not true hibernators, they need to collect much food to have ready over the winter. They cache large stores of nuts, seeds, and bulbs for their regular forays to get food. They keep several stores at the ready, just in case another animal finds their hoard and steals it.
These underground stores require a great deal of food collecting. They do this by carrying the seeds and nuts they find in cheek pouches back to their larders. They can expand their cheeks up to three times the size of their heads, filling them one cheek at a time. They can carry 5 peanuts at a time. The famous naturalist John Burroughs studied one individual chipmunk over three days and said it carried off "...5 quarts of hickory nuts, 2 quarts of chestnuts, and a quantity of shelled corn." That's right, in THREE days. For a short video of one collecting seeds and nesting material, please check out this video from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel:
|A recently weaned chippie wanders away from its burrow for the first time.