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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

December 1998

Chipmunk. © Scott Nielsen.

Calmed frenzy

Two feet underfoot, chipmunks rest up for a busy spring.

Anita Carpenter

Photo © Scott Nielsen

By the time winter winds howl and snow quilts the earth, chipmunks will be snuggled two feet underground, safe and warm inside their well-stocked burrows. Here, they blissfully sleep for three to four days at a time; awaken; dine on a meal of stored nuts, fruits and seeds; then fall back asleep. The cycle continues for four to five months until spring's warmth tempts the perky rodents to explore the above-ground world once again.

The four-ounce bundle of energy we know is the eastern chipmunk, Tamias striatus, a member of the squirrel family that ranges across most of the United States east of the great plains. In northern Wisconsin this chipmunk shares the woodlands with the least chipmunk, Eutamias minimus, which is similar, but smaller. Fifteen other chipmunk species live in the far western states.

Eastern chipmunks prefer open woods, fencerows and brushy piles, but also take up residence around homes. Each lives a solitary life defending a territory that ranges a half-acre to three acres in size. When a trespasser appears, the vigilant chipmunk scurries a few feet up a tree, peers from behind the trunk and scolds the intruder with a series of chuck-chuck-chuck calls. Neighboring chippies respond and soon a "chucking" chorus permeates the woods. When threatened, the chipmunk springs for its burrow, chipping excitedly as it runs and disappears.

A chipmunk's world is centered around its burrow which may be excavated under a rock, fallen log, tree stump, stone fence or building. The well-hidden entrance hole about two inches across leads to a subterranean tunnel that angles down for several inches, then levels off. A larger three- to four-inch tunnel leads to a nest chamber about eight inches high and a foot long. This chamber doubles as a winter food warehouse.

Older chipmunks live in more extensive complex burrows that might include a 20- to 30-foot tunnel with a nest chamber and separate areas to store food. Chipmunks that survive long enough spend a lot of time remodeling, enlarging living quarters and adding entrance holes.

Breeding begins in April. Shortly after mating, the female drives the male away. Two to eight young are born in early May. The young emerge about a month later when they are two-thirds grown. A second litter may be born in late September or early October. The fast-paced chipmunks live an average of three years.

As the days shorten and cool, chipmunks are busy collecting and storing food. Anyone with a sunflower feeder that attracts marauding chipmunks can appreciate their determination. After filling their cheeks to almost bursting, the front-heavy chipmunks scamper to their burrows and use their front feet to rub their bulging cheek pouches and squeeze out the food. Their varied diet consists of hickory nuts, acorns, maple and basswood seeds, sunflower seeds, corn, bittersweet berries and blueberries.

Since chipmunks don't put on extra fat to survive the winter, they typically horde much more food than they can possibly eat to ensure survival through the lean months. I often imagine their uneaten cache sprouting through the soil, shifting boulders and lifting houses.

Chippies are cute to watch as they live life at a hectic pace – running, climbing trees, scolding something or chasing neighbors. In fall, they can't seem to stuff their cheeks fast enough in the relentless pursuit to empty every accessible bird feeder. It seems the only rest in their busy lives is now, as they slumber, well-fed, beneath the icy white blanket waiting for spring.

Anita Carpenter, from Oshkosh, spends as much time as possible outdoors in winter, her favorite season.