The Eastern Chipmunk is the only species of chipmunk found in this area. They are a very important part of the deciduous forest ecosystem, acting as seed dispersers, predators of plants and small animals, and abundant prey themselves.
Chipmunks are rodents and members of the squirrel family (sciurids). Eastern Chipmunks, in particular, are large among the chipmunk family, are usually reddish-brown with distinct black stripes running down their backs and white stripes above and below their eyes. Between these stripes, the fur may be brown, tan, or white. They have a lighter underbelly. Chipmunks are similar to most rodents in that they have five toes on the rear feet, but only four on the front. One feature, however, that makes chipmunks stand out is their large cheeks, which are usually used to carry food and can stretch to three times the size of their head. Including the tail, chipmunks are normally 20-25 cm long (8-10 in).
Chipmunks typically live in long, shallow burrows in the ground which can reach thirty feet in length and three feet in depth. They prefer areas near rocky crevasses or decaying wood; one will rarely find chipmunks in deeply forested areas with little sunlight. Chipmunks generally have multiple exits and entrances to their burrows, which they conceal with leaves or rocks. Fairly unusually among squirrel-relatives (sciurids), they actually transport their waste soil from the digging of their burrows away from the mouth of their burrows to further conceal the entrance.
Although chipmunks are usually solitary, during mating season there can be considerable competition between males for desirable females. For chipmunks, there are two mating seasons: February-April and June-August. About one month after a female has been impregnated, she will bear a litter of as many as nine babies (average 4-5) which, when born, are furless, blind, and about the size of bumblebees. The young usually do not leave the safety of the burrow until they are six weeks old, at which age they become independent. They will become sexually mature in one year, and live for only one or two years more. It is estimated that, out of the total population of eastern chipmunks at any given time, 50% of them were born that same year.
Although many sciurids hibernate during the wintertime, chipmunks do not practice “true hibernation.” They do not gain weight before the onset of winter; instead, every few weeks in the wintertime, they awake and “snack” on their stores of food stashed in different chambers of their burrows. They have even been known to come outside and forage for short periods during the winter when the weather is milder. Although chipmunks’ winter stores typically consist mostly of nuts and seeds, during the summertime they additionally consume mushrooms, fruits, berries, insects, bird eggs, and occasionally small vertebrates.
Despite chipmunks’ agility and speed taking refuge in their burrows, they frequently become prey for foxes, owls, hawks, raccoons, weasels, and snakes. They communicate with each other through a wide range of vocalizations, including the chip chip chip for which they are named. Chipmunks are thought to have excellent senses of vision, hearing, and smell.
This eastern chipmunk was trapped in the Walton Pavilion.
Article by Hazel Galloway