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Humans vs. Chipmunks

September 27, 2010

ChipmunkI live in the woods.  One of my favourite activities at this time of year (early fall) is watching the chipmunks (genus Tamias striatus; Tamias is Greek for ‘storer’) in my yard as they scamper here and there at high rates of speed, collecting seeds and nuts (although they apparently also eat various fruits, fungi, insects and the occasional small rodent during the spring and summer months), and returning to their burrows with their cheeks stuffed full.

Since chipmunks produce two litters of two to four babies each year, and the babies don’t go too far afield in their first year (two-and-a-half acres [one hectare] can house as many as 40 chipmunks), my yard is a veritable chipmunk action centre. (I should mention here that the area surrounding my property contains several oak, maple, black walnut and butternut trees, as well as a host of other trees, flowering shrubs and perennials that all produce seeds of one sort or another.  It’s like an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord for squirrels, racoons, skunks, and chipmunks!)

As entertaining as they are (and you have to admit, chipmunks are CUTE), you also have to admire the industriousness of these tiny creatures.  Each year they have to find a mate, build a complex living structure (up to 100 feet of tunnels and several chambers for eating, sleeping and bearing young), raise two sets of babies, locate, bring home, and store enormous amounts of food, and protect their territory (and their offspring) – all while facing any number of perils (including hawks, cats, and human-powered vehicles).  It’s hard work!

Chipmunks acting like peopleChipmunks have often been anthropomorphized (given human characteristics) in movies, books, and on television. The most famous examples would, of course, be Disney’s Chip ‘N Dale (who still look pretty good for their age – they would qualify for social security if they were human), and Alvin and the Chipmunks (who are only five years younger than I am, but who have had several television shows, two movies, and a collection of best-selling albums). But do humans and chipmunks share any common characteristics in real life? I believe they do!

If you observe chipmunk behaviour for any length of time (and I have the perfect observation post on my second-storey deck), you’ll notice that they follow the same paths to and from their burrows.  They may have an alternate or two (to avoid predators, or to make a quick foray into a competitor’s food source) but they don’t deviate often.  Humans do the same – we generally take the same route to and from work every day, detouring occasionally to avoid traffic jams, or to pop into the grocery store on our way home. We know the ‘best way’ to get between any two points. 

Chipmunk calls – a mix of ‘chips’ and ‘chuks’ – can be heard frequently throughout the day.  (I’m not sure if they’re saying “This is my territory – keep out” or “Hey, I’m over here, where are you?” or – during the spring – “Hey honey, want to come over to my place and check out my collection of nuts?”) Occasionally they give loud warnings (chipping as many as 130 times a minute, for as long as ten minutes) when one of the neighbourhood cats is prowling about (they are surprisingly quiet when one or more of the hawks – who nest close by and ‘train’ their offspring to fly and hunt in the woods – are in the area).  The only difference I see here between chipmunks and humans is that their ‘always-on’ communication is carried out without the use of cell phones!

Chipmunks live in burrows that consist of several chambers, many tunnels, and as many as five entrances.  People live in houses that have several rooms, many hallways, and any number of doors!  (Adult male chipmunks occasionally choose to live in simple single-chambered burrows where they store their food, eat, and sleep alone – sort of a “man-cave”. Enough said!)

Chipmunk cheeksWhile all chipmunks store food for later consumption, according to an article on Wikipedia, a female chipmunk was once observed (in 1982) carrying six white oak acorns in her mouth and cheek pouches to her burrow 100 feet away; the round trip required two minutes (at that rate she could move 116 acorns per hour).  Is this any different than the average adult human female trekking to and from the grocery store with several weeks’ worth of groceries for her family? 

A single chipmunk burrow was once found that contained 308 acorns and one hickory nut in its largest storage chamber, and 82 acorns and a second hickory nut in a smaller one (the total cache weighed almost three times that of the chipmunk itself).  My main storage area (the kitchen pantry and fridge) and my secondary storage space (some cupboards and a freezer in the laundry room downstairs) hold pretty the same ratio (by weight) after a single trip to Costco (although I admit to having a slightly more varied diet)!

Chipmunks are relatively inactive in the summer (as compared to their behaviour in the spring and fall seasons).  The heat of summer makes most humans slow down as well.  Chipmunks do not ‘hibernate’ in the winter – instead, they go into a state of torpor (reduced activity, temperature, and metabolism).  In this state, they are moderately active during part of the day, when they move around their burrows and eat; at night their temperature drops in order to conserve energy.  I don’t know about you, but that pretty much describes how I behave in the winter when the snow is blowing and the temperatures outside reach minus just-about-any-number!

The more I watch ‘my’ chipmunks, the easier it is to recognize differences in them (they might all ‘look alike’, but each one has its own patterns of behaviour, territories, and – I like to think – personalities!)  People – in general, and I imagine, in the eyes of chipmunks – all have the same general physiology, but we all behave differently from one another, which sets each of us apart from all the others as we go about our daily lives.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we collect and store nuts and seeds, or top sirloin and Kraft dinner – we are all just trying to ‘make do’ in the world.  And what a wonderful world it is when even the smallest of creatures can carve out a place for themselves, raise a family, feed them, keep the predators at bay, and put a roof over their heads year-after-year.  I’m glad the chipmunks have found a place to call ‘home’ in my yard and I’ll continue to watch over them as I marvel at the power of nature, life, and love here on  … the other side of 55.

One of my chipmunks

One of my chipmunks

  1. Marie permalink
    July 13, 2012 4:33 pm

    Thanks for the reflection and info… I have become the chippie whisperer and suddenly all my chipmunks have disappeared .. We are in drought and weeks of 100 degree temp


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