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Gayle Pille: Our little ground squirrel is everywhere, overlooked; get ‘chipmunk’ names from their sounds

Some species of wildlife are so familiar that we just seem to take them for granted. They’re everywhere. The interesting but often overlooked Eastern Chipmunk is one such critter.

The chipmunk is our only striped squirrel. They are ground squirrels like their much larger cousin the woodchuck, though they can easily climb trees. And even though we seem to see chipmunks everywhere, they are for the most part solitary.

Chipmunks are called ground squirrels because they spend most of their lives on the ground, or underground in burrows. Their burrows can be up to 30 feet long and three feet deep; and include nesting chambers, potty facilities, and multiple storage rooms for nuts and seeds. And they need that storage space. By the end of autumn a chipmunk can have up to 5,000 to 6,000 nuts stored away for winter use.

(Photo by Gayle Pille)

They are true omnivores and will eat anything from roots, nuts, seeds, mushrooms and berries to insects, earthworms, snails and salamanders. One of their favorite foods is beechnuts. They can stuff their two internal cheek pouches with as many as 32 beechnuts at a time. When beech mast is abundant, beechnuts are gathered by ground foraging.

However, when the beechnut crop is poor, chipmunks must resort to climbing to get their favorite delicacy. The smooth bark of beech trees acts as a barrier to chipmunks, so they must climb nearby trees with rough bark which serve as a ladder to the canopy of mature beech trees. Once in the canopy, chipmunks locate clusters of beechnuts and bite them off, quickly returning to the ground to retrieve them.

Though chipmunks are solitary, they communicate extensively via a variety of trilling, chucking and chipping sounds. Hence the name “chipmunk.” They can frequently be heard in the woods making a “chuck” every few seconds which is then answered by others. It’s not long before the woods are alive with a chorus of chipmunks chucking away. Many a hunter is familiar with these chucking noises, but few are aware that it’s chipmunks making them.

Females bear young twice a year, in spring and fall. Chipmunks can have anywhere from four to six youngsters. Raising the family is solely up to the female. After about 40 days the young are weaned and moved to a nearby burrow. Chipmunks have the potential to live up to eight years, but most live only about two to three years.

Chipmunks are a critical part of the food chain. In other words, lots of other animals like to eat them. They are a favorite food of hawks, coyotes, foxes, weasels, snakes, raccoons, and both feral and domestic felines.

So the next time you see a chipmunk, take a few minutes to observe. You’ll see that they have five toes on their front feet and four on their back feet. They can store so much food in their cheek pouches that the pouches will stretch to three times the size of their head.

They feed atop a stump, log or rock to keep an eye out for predators. And they always run with their bushy tail straight up in the air.

And, they are downright cute.


Gayle Pille is a Northern Kentucky-based naturalist and nature writer who many know through her work to establish the five-mile network of nature trails at Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell. She created the cemetery’s popular 25-year-old Wildlife Enhancement Program and works with a small team of volunteers to maintain the cemetery’s wooded walking paths. An avid birdwatcher, Gayle also builds custom wildlife nest boxes for businesses, parks and residences through her business, www.woodlandhabitat.com Contact her at gaylepille@yahoo.com

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