Saturday, April 11, 2015

Chipmunks: Friendly Harbingers of Spring

800px-Tamias_striatus2The friendly harbinger of spring has arrived. Our banded friend the Eastern Chipmunk has been making visits to our bird feeder in Schroon Lake.

Chipmunks can be very social creatures; even those found deep within the woods can still surprise you. Years ago, my husband and I were taking a much needed vacation by camping out at Clear Pond in the Pharoah Lake Wilderness Area. We had the lean to all to ourselves, or so we thought.  

After a relaxing afternoon dangling our feet into the pond and enjoying the sounds of nature, we started cooking dinner. As we relaxed by the fire, waiting for the food, a plump chipmunk came scurrying into camp. Our new friend ran right up to my husband, like a puppy begging for a treat. My husband put his hand down, trying to see how close the chipmunk would come; I warned him that he might get bit. He shrugged off my warning, till he jumped and yelped. Being the good wife, I tried my hardest not to say I told you so.

Our little friend had decided that we were not a source of food, so he decided to checkout our gear. We didn’t think much of this until he tried to run off with our supplies. We chased him to the side of the lean-to and into a hole. When we looked inside, we saw our friendly little thief had been stealing from other campers. I have heard of a pack-rat, but never a pack-chipmunk. There was a camera, a multi-tool, pieces of garbage, and all sorts of items. For the rest of the trip, we kept a close eye on the pack-chipmunk and all of our possessions.

Not all chipmunks are as brave. The Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) prefers old growth forests made up of beech and maple, with an open understory. They generally live in burrows with many tunnels and food galleries. Chipmunks spend the summer and fall storing food in these galleries for winter. They will feed on seeds, fruits, fungi, bulbs, bugs and occasionally birds. Yup, birds!!

Chipmunks don’t truly hibernate, but they do remain in their tunnels unless there is a mid-winter thaw. They will come out in the spring, as long as the weather is warmer and the snowpack has gone down.

Female chipmunks are receptive for only about 6 or 7 hours between April and June and again from August to October, when she will mate with one or more males. Following a gestation period of around 31 days, she will give birth to a litter of about 2 to 9 young.  With any luck come summer we will see new little stripped friends running around the woods near our house in Schroon Lake.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Gilles Gonthier.

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Corrina Parnapy, an Adirondack native  transplanted to Vermont with her husband and son, is the District Manager for the largest Natural Resources Conservation District in the State of Vermont.  She is the lead Aquatic Biologist/ Phycologist for Avacal Biological, and writes about the natural world for the Adirondack Almanack and other Northeast publications.




One Response

  1. Bruce says:

    We had a similar experience while camping at Golden Pond on Raquette Lake many years ago. A chipmunk came right up on the table while we were eating dinner. We pushed a few sunflower seeds towards it, which it eagerly filled it’s cheek pouches with and went to its den. In a few minutes it was back. Understand this was before we actually knew it was against NYS law to feed wild animals, although because bears are prevalent where we live, we knew feeding bears was definitely a bad idea for several reasons.

    “Chippy” was our constant companion that whole week. We even have a picture of it sitting on my chest while napping in a reclining camp chair. The little rascal cleaned out the bulk of our sunflower seed supply.

    Which brought to mind a question: I e-mailed Cornell’s Ornithology dept. about what affect bird feeders had on the behavior and movements of birds, as that could also be seen as feeding wild animals in the strictest sense. Their answer was that it has little affect, and is seen more as “dessert” in addition to their normal foraging behavior. Go figure.