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Chipmunks use cheeks to move food, tunnel system to store it

Sunday, July 7, 2013
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This chipmunk managed to climb up to my birdbath where it could enjoy a drink and get a good look around.
This chipmunk managed to climb up to my birdbath where it could enjoy a drink and get a good look around.

Summer is a time for picnics, swimming, camping and chipmunks. These small ground squirrels can be found throughout North America, but not all chipmunks are created equally. In fact, there are 16 different species of chipmunks that can be found on the continent. But here in the eastern U.S. we have only one — the eastern chipmunk. And believe me, one is all we need!

Chipmunks live in elaborate tunnel systems that they excavate for many uses. There are latrines and sleeping chambers, but the most important use of tunnels is food storage. Unlike red and gray squirrels, chipmunks are not active during the winter. Instead, chipmunks gather as much food as they can in the autumn because once the snow falls they seal themselves underground and do not emerge again until spring.

‘The striped storer’

To make food transportation easier, the chipmunk has evolved what is probably its most famous feature — cheek pouches. Actually, the scientific name for the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) refers to this characteristic. The Latin word “Tamias” means “storer,” and species identifier “striatus” means “striped.” The full translation of the name is something like “the striped storer.”

In the spring, after awakening from their long rest, chipmunks immediately start raising families. Mating occurs in the early spring and females give birth to three to five young in early May.

The babies are born naked, blind and deaf, and about all they can do is nurse. They grow quickly, however, and in just a couple of weeks they look like little versions of their mothers.

The babies are weaned quickly and soon their increasing agility will assist them in finding their own food. Chipmunks focus most of their efforts on seeds and nuts, but they will also eat flower buds, insects, snails, slugs and even mice from time to time. They even become quite skilled at climbing trees.

Masters of blending in

All of this agility is needed to help them avoid their greatest predator, the long-tailed weasel. Foxes, hawks, bobcats and the occasional snake will also prey on chipmunks, but the weasel is their most dangerous predator because a weasel can go anywhere the chipmunk can go. The chipmunk’s best defense against these enemies is camouflage and noise.

Chipmunks are masters of blending in. Their rusty colored fur is marked with black and white stripes that run along their sides and these stripes do a wonderful job of helping the animals become part of the background. When a chipmunk stands still it can be very hard to see it. Then there is the sharp voice that they have. When a chipmunk gives a sharp “CHIP” and then disappears, you are often so surprised that you cannot figure out where the noise even came from.

Cats are a big problem

This is a tremendous asset for avoiding weasels, but there is one predator that the chipmunk appears to be virtually helpless against — the domestic cat. Chipmunks are easy prey for cats, particularly at this time of year. If a cat finds the entrance to a female’s burrow it may kill every inquisitive little baby in just a matter of hours.

If you have a cat I strongly urge you to keep it inside. It’s safer for the cat and safer for all of the small animals in your yard. Just one or two weeks of no cat in the yard can produce an amazing difference in animal life, and one day you may even discover that a chipmunk is exploring your yard in search of a home.

 
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