Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… may be as close as our meadow and gardens, or a walk down the driveway to peer into the now unfrozen pond. I hope to hear the sound of wood frogs and peepers any day now. The deep snow has finally, with the help of warm breezes and spring rains departed from the woods, meadow, gardens, and lawn. Renewal, rebirth, and new birth fill the morning with sounds of great delight. The red-winged blackbird has returned, and songs from many migratory birds can be enjoyed as I filled the feeders and add fresh water to the birdbath. The Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) heard my movements and come for the unsalted peanuts and black-oiled sunflower seeds that are also shared with the birds and an assortment of red, gray, and black squirrels.
Mating begins in March and April for chipmunks and they will also mate again between June and July. The young are born about a month after the adults mate. The courtship includes nose touching and licking; while a rapid movement of their tail signals acceptance. The newborns are both blind and hairless. The average size of the litter is four to five kits. Within two weeks the kits will have fuzzy hair, and they are able to hear. They will have their sight at the end of the first month and will also no longer be nursed by the mother chipmunk (weaned). When they finally leave the burrow at about six weeks they will resemble the adults. However, they are only two thirds the size of their parents and may easily be identified as a juvenile because of their thin tails. The siblings interact with one another as they play and explore. At about two months old the mother no longer allows them to enter her burrow. They are now on their own. They will either have to find a vacated burrow or begin to dig their own burrow in another area.
Eastern chipmunks are members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae) and the order of (Rodentia) or rodents. Like all rodents, they have a pair of continually growing upper and lower incisors in their front jaws. Gnawing on hard nuts and seeds leaves the enamel edge sharp as a blade and wears away the softer dentine in the back of the tooth. They spend most of their day searching for food. Their appearance changes greatly as they “pouch” the found food. I have watched a chipmunk place a peanut in either side of its mouth and carry a third in its teeth before returning to its burrow to cache the food. Their food caching and consumption is quite diverse, they are omnivores eating seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, mushrooms, garden bulbs, beetles, grasshoppers, and cicadas. They also eat mice, slugs, frogs, newts, and bird’s eggs. I watched in amazement one afternoon as a chipmunk ate a small snake. In addition to finding food for their daily needs, they are always caching some of the found food.
The amount of food they find and cache in their burrows is quite astonishing. The burrows are rather complex and may include several rooms. They may have rooms for nesting, resting toileting, and caching. The burrow may extend below ground a depth of three feet or more and have tunnels that can be as long as thirty feet. The nesting room is usually about ten inches in diameter and will contain a supply of nonperishable food. The opening to the burrow is round, and about one to two inches in diameter. There is no debris or dirt around the entry hole.
Their scientific name Tamias means striped and striatus means storer; it certainly describes them perfectly. There are about twenty different chipmunks throughout North America. Only the Eastern Chipmunk resides in our area. Their coloring is a reddish tan and they have a long black stripe running down their back. On either side of the long black stripe there is a shorter black stripe, and another short white stripe, and another short black stripe. The average adult length is five to six inches and the thick tail is between three to four inches in length. They only weigh about four ounces and can be seen running with their tails straight up.
As I write this column I am filled with wonderful memories of a chipmunk which we named Roger. Roger was the name our grandchildren gave to a gregarious male chipmunk that took up residence in the rock wall next to the driveway. He was a “treasured friend” for nearly seven years, which is a fairly long life expectancy for a chipmunk. The average lifetime is normally two to four years. Roger was very recognizable because he was missing a small portion of his left ear; which he no doubt lost in a battle. He entertained all of our grandchildren when they spent summer vacations with us. Without any coaxing, he learned to run up on their laps, as they sat on the grass, with unsalted peanuts in their laps. He always took three peanuts and immediately cached them and returned to our grandchildren’s delight to retrieve all that was left. It didn’t take long for siblings, mate, and his offspring to take advantage of these fine offerings, and giggles and laughter filled the morning air, until that day’s supply ran out. It was actually Roger that I watched eating the small snake. I learned a lot about their diet by watching Roger and his kin. I learned that they are great tree climbers, and how their continual chipping warned of danger when a hawk or other predator was nearby. It was a truly sad spring when we waited, but didn’t have the privilege of Roger’s presence that year. Gone yet always remembered.
I read with great interest a note that John Burroughs, the naturalist wrote about chipmunk caching. The burrow he uncovered, found that in a period of three days, a single chipmunk stored five quarts of hickory nuts, two quarts of chestnuts, and a quantity of shelled corn. I can attest to those amounts too as the barrels of black-oiled sunflower seeds the unsalted peanuts diminish throughout the spring, summer, and fall. It is a bit expensive but provides great enjoyment and photo opportunities. I wish you similar opportunities also, where you wander.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org