Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus)
The Eastern Chipmunk is actually a small ground squirrel. It has reddish brown fur and a white belly, with 2 white stripes bordered by black on each side and a fifth black stripe down the center of its back. It has short rounded ears that stick straight up, and white stripes above and below each eye. The chipmunk has pouches in its cheeks to store and carry its food, and its tail sticks straight up like a flag when it runs. When upset or startled, the chipmunk makes a loud chattering noise. Chipmunks communicate with each other through chatter and in fact get their name from the loud 'chip' sound they make.
Chipmunks are native to North America and can be found in southeastern Canada and most of the eastern United States. They live in a variety of habitats, from deciduous forest, to bushy areas at the edge of the forest and even in rocky areas. It is not unusual to find chipmunks living in the foundations of human housing or in rock walls near houses, or even in woodpiles.
Chipmunks are diurnal and spend most of their waking hours gathering and storing food. They are omnivores and their diet consists mainly of nuts, acorns, seeds, mushrooms, fruits, berries and corn. However, they also eat insects, snails, slugs, bird eggs, salamanders, small snakes, small mammals such as mice, and even some plants. They collect most of their food from the ground but will climb trees to get acorns and fruit. Chipmunks only store hard food that will not mold, such as nuts, pine cones and seeds. They often store up to 8 pounds of food in their burrows. This cache of food is supposed to last the chipmunk through the winter.
Most people think chipmunks hibernate but they don't go into true hibernation. They wake every couple weeks to eat from their cache of food. Their burrow usually consists of several small room-like areas connected by tunnels. There will be a place for food storage and a room for sleeping. Most chipmunks will even have a "bathroom" area so that their sleeping quarters are not soiled. During warm months, the chipmunk will often clean the bathroom area, carrying the waste far away from the opening of the burrow so it doesn't attract predators. Since a chipmunk continues digging its burrow all its life, the burrow tunnels often can extend 30 feet or more with several exits for emergencies.
Chipmunks usually have two breeding seasons: from February to April and from June to August. During these times, the female will be ready to mate for 3-10 days and males will gather in her territory to compete for the chance to mate with her. After mating, the male leaves the female to raise the young on her own. After a 31 day pregnancy, there will be a litter of usually four or five babies born, but there can be as many as eight or nine. They will nurse for approximately 6 weeks before mom begins to take them out foraging with her. At about 8 weeks of age, the baby chipmunks are weaned and ready to leave the nest and establish their own territories. Young chipmunks are fully grown by three months but will not usually become sexually mature until the following year. A chipmunk's life span is usually 2-3 years in the wild, but can be 5-8 years in captivity. Chipmunks can be easily tamed and are sometimes captured for the pet industry.
Natural predators of Eastern chipmunks include hawks, owls, raccoons, fox, coyotes and house cats. As mentioned above, man can also be a predator, although chipmunks usually manage to coexist peacefully with man. The Eastern chipmunk is useful to the environment since its habit of eating insects often helps keep that population under control. Chipmunks also help in the propagation of new vegetation by spreading plant seed and fungi, either by burying them in a soon to be forgotten cache or by eating fruit and mushrooms and eliminating the seeds and spores elsewhere.