This is a small, striped rodent in the genus Tamias; Greek for “treasurer”, “steward”, or “housekeeper”, and reflects their habit of collecting and storing food for winter. Many names have been used over the years for these cute little mammals. John James Audubon called them chipping squirrels; others have called them striped squirrels, timber tigers, and ground squirrels. Their name is thought to originate from one of the sounds they make, a “chip-chip” sound. Other sounds include a deeper chuck and a startle call.
Chipmunks are 2 to 6 inches long, and weigh just a few ounces. They have brown, yellow and grey fur with black stripes down the back. All but one species of chipmunk are native to North America. The one other species lives in northern Asia.
Chipmunks are “omnivorous” meaning they eat just about everything. Their diet is mostly seeds, nuts and fruits, but they will also eat grass, small plant shoots, fungi, insects, arthropods, small frogs, and bird eggs. Or to put it simply, everything. Though they mostly find food on the ground, they will climb trees for nuts and acorns; sometimes as many as 165 acorns in a day. Early autumn, they start to hoard nonperishable food for winter and store it in the “larder” section of their burrow. Those puffy cheeks are like grocery bags and are used to carry loads of food to their burrow.
Chipmunks spend a lot of time underground in burrows which are extensive, up to eleven feet in length. The shallow part of their burrow is used to seek refuge when foraging during the day. The deeper parts are for storing food and sleeping. They keep their sleeping quarters clean by moving food debris and feces into special tunnels just for refuse. Our western chipmunks spend the winters in their burrow but do not hibernate. They depend on their stockpile of food for their survival. Since they have relative safety in their burrows, they spend about 15 hours a day sleeping.
Our western chipmunks mate just once per year in the spring and produce two to eight young. When born, the young, or pups, are hairless, blind, pink and about the size of a jelly bean. The young stay with their parents for about two months and then start to build their own home and stockpile of food for the coming winter.
Chipmunks are valuable to our forests. Harvesting and hoarding tree seeds means that some seeds are dispersed and sprout. Some species of fungi that chipmunks eat have lost the ability to disperse their spores through the air, so the chipmunks handle the dispersal.
A group of chipmunks is called a “scurry”. Can you guess why?
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.