In the late fall of 2012 I concluded that all the adorable chipmunks, who had amused and delighted me throughout the summer were dead. The bleak days of dreary November went by; I gazed sadly into a yard bereft of stripey fun; I cursed my neighbor’s cat, remembering my Shannon’s pleasure when, after an illegal trip to the yard, she returned with a mouthful of chipmunk.
Then, at last, came spring, and on the first warm day there was a miniature explosion of chipmunks. Looking as fit and lively as ever, chipmunks of several sizes, from newly minted children, not more than an inch long to full sized, three inch grown ups, chased each other up and down the cellar door, foraged in the scanty, winter grass, and posed on the stacks of slate that made our back yard such a perfect habitat.
And these were neither immigrants nor tourists. Several I thought were clearly the offspring of “my” chipmunks, born on the premises (but where? but when?), tiny copies of what I could only suppose were their not particularly proud parents, who mingled casually with the younger generation.
This happy experience taught me a number of things, possibly the most useful of which was “consult the internet, you dumb cluck!” In fact, I do use the internet frequently and often with gratitude, but it is not instinctive for me as it is for the young and for many of the not so young who rush to its rich offerings of info and mis-info first and turn on their brains second. Anyway, old habits die hard. At least I don’t put on my galoshes and slog to the library to consult a book, delightful as that might sometimes be, and I do use the internet. I use it every day for something, but I still have the weird old habit of relying on what I know (in many cases not much) or even, believe it or not, of cracking a book.
Back to chipmunks. The next two pictures would give the game away if one were thinking like a naturalist. Here a feisty householder has emerged from a fairly well concealed round hole and is having a wary look around.
We, too, have these round holes, which are less well hidden under even weedier grass. We have several of them, two near the barbecue, two more quite far away by chipmunk standards out where the wash line begins. After deciding that none of these holes is big enough to cause a fall or sprained ankle, I have pondered their greater mystery. “Something lives down there,” I tell my daughter, and she agrees.
Enter Wikipedia on the subject of chipmunks: “They dig complex burrows with many entrances and chambers as well as short escape tunnels, and each chipmunk defends a small area around its burrow, threatening, chasing, and even fighting with a neighbor who invades the space.” Really? Well, that’s fascinating and illustrates what we all know, that there can be more than one version of Wikipedia on the same topic. This is the first I’ve heard of territorial defensiveness, and the alert gaze of the emerging chipmunk may be focused on a burrow thief or not. Perhaps he is looking for someone to play one of those exhausting chipmunk games or someone to mate with or someone who is eating an especially delicious nut (or apple or peanut butter sandwich or baby bird). Perhaps he (or she, of course) is simply enjoying the few but undeniable signs of spring in Massachusetts. How will I know? I could settle down in a not too distant lawn chair (chipmunks are not easily alarmed by people) and watch until I saw something definitive happening to the emergent chipmunk. This could be several weeks down the road or happening to a different chipmunk that I was unable to distinguish from the one that first caught my attention. This discouraging observation reminds me of the reasons I never became a naturalist, tempting though that path sometimes seemed.
Having abandoned the idea of observation, I turned to the usual source, and the first thing I found out was that chipmunks hibernate. They seem not to like cold weather, at least in the fall, and when the first chill arrives, down the round holes they dive into surprisingly elaborate and commodious burrows to spend what must be a cozy and perhaps even sociable winter. I made the last part up, but why not? The situation is made to order for sociability, if you like your family, and chipmunk hibernation is no deathly coma, no precipitous drop in body temperature or function. Hibernating chipmunks do sleep a lot and sometimes go a bit comatose, but then they wake up and do amusing things like eating the food they have stored during the summer.
I didn’t even know that chipmunks had cheek pouches. Then one day I saw one take a large peanut I had meant for a squirrel and stow it away. He retreated under a pile of lumber with this prize and came back for more. Judging from the photo, even an enormous peanut is nothing to the capacity of the tiny rodent’s pouch. The food is stored in a separate chamber in the burrow where there is also a room for discarded shells and other culinary trash and for use as a toilet. Having learned that chipmunks in the wild only live about a year (which suggests that my grief was not entirely misplaced), my thoughts turn to mortuary matters. Is there a room for those who expire during the winter? If so, other questions arise. To think, when I started this blog, I thought I would be short of material.
Questions, questions and so many with no answers within the framework of this ramble. Jack, of course, said I should go to Google Scholar. He always says that, and I never do it because, for one thing, I read just a hair faster than the three toed sloth I so closely resemble. But this time I had a look, and Yes! Oh Wow! If I read just half of what various scientists have to say about the Eastern Chipmunk, I could write a book instead of a blog. Stay tuned. Maybe in 2016 when I’ve got a few other things done…