Minnesota Outdoors: Enjoying familiar, affable chipmunks in the backyard
I’ve been working in my day job from home since March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. While I’m very grateful for being able to work from home, a side benefit that I hadn’t considered in the beginning was getting to know my wild “neighbors” just a tad better. Indeed, from migrant songbirds returning to court and nest; to periodic visits of black bears; to gray squirrels, deer, and chipmunks; and all the various waterfowl on Assawa Lake, my morning and afternoon backyard breaks have provided me gifts that keep on giving.
Chipmunks have been uncommonly abundant and active this season. Their comings and goings have become a source of a joy for me. In fact, I’ve been able to tame a couple of them almost with little treats of peanuts that I carry around in my pocket. I’m as pleased observing the striped and gentle creatures as I am of the many birds that entertain me. Trip after endless trip to the feeders they go, filling up both of their inside cheek pouches with sunflower seeds until they look as if they have a case of the mumps, and down their holes into mysterious networks of underground stores to empty the contents within. I will forever wonder just how many pounds of seed that just one chipmunk can stash in just one summer.
Here in Minnesota we have two species of chipmunks. The most common species we observe in our region is the eastern chipmunk. The other, and smaller than the eastern, is the least chipmunk. Both animals belong to the squirrel family, Sciuridae, and are considered to be ground squirrels. Unlike tree squirrels such as gray squirrels and red squirrels, chipmunks, although certainly proficient at tree climbing, are a more subterranean animal. Inactive during the wintertime—at least above ground—chipmunks spend the cold months of the year hibernating in their underground burrows. Sometimes, as temperatures warm, chipmunks will stir awake to feed and maybe even venture above ground to have a quick look around.
Chipmunks, like other grounds squirrels such as woodchucks, Franklin’s ground squirrels, and thirteen-lined ground squirrels are true hibernators; that is, their body temperature and metabolic rates decreases significantly. Their most notable characteristic is the stripes on their backs and sides. Five in all, the stripes are dark brown in color with a single band of whitish fur separating the two stripes on each sides of their bodies.
As friendly and docile as we view chipmunks, and indeed they seem to be, Dr. Evan Hazard, Bemidji, reported in his book The Mammals of Minnesota, that chipmunks are actually one of the most aggressive species of rodent. Chipmunk territories, especially where prized food sources are present and the animals are concentrated and competing for the resource, typically become battleground arenas of frenzied chasing, fighting, and noisy vocalizations.
Chipmunks eat an array of foods: nuts, berries, seeds, and even birds and other small living creatures. But as Dr. Hazard writes, some people dislike chipmunks for killing wild birds. And he concludes, “. . . but to me this is an unrealistic and unreasonable view of nature. Predation is a universal and necessary part of nature, and, to enjoy wild things as wild things, one must accept the ways in which natural communities operate.”
Throughout most of my life while enjoying the company of chipmunks (including as pets) around my home and in the wild, I have witnessed chipmunks raiding birdhouses and bird nests for eggs and nestlings. One afternoon several summers ago I was shocked to see a chipmunk enter a bluebird house and then quickly leave with a fully feather bluebird chick clenched tightly in its mouth. As gruesome of an end to the bluebird as it was, the chick served as a necessary and nutritious meal for the chipmunk.
But mostly, chipmunks spend their days searching for nuts, seeds and fruits while scurrying about, chasing each other, and stuffing their cheek pouches full of foodstuffs for caching in their underground stores. The affable chipmunk, a very familiar furry friend occupying nearly every woodland throughout Minnesota, including our own backyards, are especially active right now as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane likes to get your feedback and hear your stories from the Minnesota outdoors. Reach him at email@example.com.