Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.
South Vermont Hill Road, Holland, N.Y.

Species Profile:  The Chipmunk
by Mike Olek

Anyone fortunate enough to spend time in the woods on a dry autumn afternoon should find a spot to sit quietly for an hour or so. Treat yourself to some simple pleasures that seem to escape us in these busy, hurry up times. Allow yourself the time to relax, taking in the sights of the forest. Sit with the intention of blending in with nature ... so that you become as still as a stone. Soon the woods will come alive around you. Try sitting with your back against a tree so that you don't stand out against the sky, and clear the leaves around you so that you do not make any noise should you shift around. Then sit back and enjoy the show. Move only your eyes, while remaining absolutely still. You will become aware of things that you may never have noticed before. Sights, smells, sounds and subtle breezes will become more enhanced. Even a spider rushing across the ground will draw your attention. One of the best shows begin the moment you hear the rustle of dry leaves and you notice an Eastern Chipmunk scurry about to collect its winter cache of food. If you remain motionless, this little ground squirrel may actually run across your feet or legs, totally oblivious to your presence.

The Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is in the squirrel family, in the order of rodents. The Latin name straitus means striped, and the name Tamias means storer. It closely resembles a hamster, and like a hamster it uses cheek pouches to carry its groceries home. It has brown to reddish brown fur, with black and white stripes running down its back. This little 5 to 6 inch long cutie only weighs about 2 to 4 ounces. Like all squirrels, it mainly eats seeds, nuts, and fruit. They also eat insects, frogs, meat and even rob ground nests.

Chipmunks are mammals that live in underground dens andChipmunks are Members of the Squirrel Family! burrows. Within their network of tunnels they have chambers for sleeping, and storing their winter hoard of food. They can excavate up to 100 ft. of tunnels ... with chambers that can measure 6 to 8 inches high and 12 inches in diameter. In these nest chambers they sleep, hibernate, have young and store quarts of food.

I have read that chipmunks have the ability to detect the presence of a predator in its burrow by the sudden change of air pressure. If this is true, once a predator like a weasel enters, the chipmunk merely has to make a rapid retreat out of another exit. During winter hibernation chipmunks periodically wake to shift position or nibble on their stored groceries. In my opinion, watching these little chipmunks in their natural environment is more fun then watching a hamster running in an exercise wheel. Their quick movements are almost comical. When in a big hurry, they run with their little tails held straight up. It's amazing how fast they can run on those tiny legs. They can travel at a speed of 15 feet per second. Like nervous little thieves, when foraging for food they dart about stopping frequently to check for danger. They pop up, look around, then speed off again.

It seems that whenever two chipmunks meet, a game of chase always takes place. This can be due to defense of territory, or courtship chases. Male chipmunks have an average home range of to 3 acres, but only a protected territory of about 45 feet in diameter. Mating occurs from February to April and then again from June to July. Gestation is 31 days long. The first litter of young are born around April and May and the second litter about July or August. Anywhere from 3 to 8 young can be born with each litter. At 4 weeks of age the young begin to wean. At 6 weeks, they emerge from their den with mom to explore the outside world. At just 8 weeks of age, they are on their own and driven away by their mother to find territories of their own. The average life span of a chipmunk in the wild is two to three years. Captive chipmunks have been known to live for eight years. Chipmunks must always be alert for danger because they are near the bottom of the food chain. They are often hunted by hawks, snakes, mink, weasels, fox, coyote, bears, and bob cats.

Several years ago we had a chipmunk burrow right on our front lawn. I could watch their antics from my living room window. It was like having my own personal Discovery Channel. Since then, they have all moved on and their home has been taken over by a nest of Bumblebees. I miss Mrs. Chipster and her young'ins. Hopefully, you may come across a Mrs. Chipster of your own, and enjoy one of life's simple pleasures.

Copyright 2000 Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.

This species profile is copyrighted and may only be reprinted with the express permission of Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.

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Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.
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