Speaking of Nature: Chipmunks are both loved and hated

  • A chipmunk tunneling in a flowerpot. This, however cute, typically elicits a negative response to the little creatures. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • A chipmunk dines on a mushroom cap. This should elicit a positive response. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Published: 9/17/2017 12:00:13 PM

If it should happen that the name “chipmunk” comes up during polite conversation, you can generally expect to see one of two general reactions.

The first, is a softening of the features and the appearance of a smile on the face of the person you are talking with. This is the positive response and it is similar to that which might follow the utterance of the words “puppies” or “kittens.”

For others, the response is quite different. The word “chipmunk” is uttered, and the person you are talking with will generally groan or moan. Often, this vocal, but nonverbal, response is paired with a rolling of the eyes and gentle shaking of the head. This is the negative response, and it is similar to the one that might be elicited by topic of a children’s birthday party at a pizza restaurant, the general condition of a teenager’s bedroom or a colonoscopy.

Those that exhibit the positive response are usually reminiscing about camping trips of some sort. These folks found themselves outside and in the company of a chipmunk that was delightfully bold and willing to approach people with an endearing inquisitiveness that usually resulted in the human offering the chipmunk some sort of food. Invariably, the chipmunk accepted the food and then took advantage of the situation for as long as it would last.

Those that exhibit the negative response are usually homeowners that enjoy gardening or put out bird feeders. These people generally view chipmunks as marauders that will pillage birdseed and destroy gardens by tunneling under plants and feeding on the bulbs. The tunnels can also wreak havoc with patios and driveways by causing cave-ins that cause the surfaces to become uneven. In the case of a patio, this is annoying, but relatively simple to remedy. In the case of a driveway, it can become quite expensive to repair.

For my part, I am usually overcome with both responses simultaneously, and the people I am talking with invariably ask me if I am OK.

I see both sides of the chipmunk, and I have powerful responses at both ends of the spectrum. What, after all, could be more wonderful than to have a wild animal approach you with what I can only describe as hopeful optimism? Given the chance, the chipmunk is the only wild animal that I know that will eat out of your hand in less than 30 minutes, and this is always a wonderful experience.

However — and this is a big however — I am also a homeowner. I feed birds, which means I feed chipmunks, which means chipmunks live in my yard, which means they start tunneling, which means I’m being robbed and vandalized at the same time.

If you could see my face right now, you would think that someone had just informed me that the guest toilet has just clogged during a dinner party. Arg!

The eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is the only chipmunk species found in New England and is one of the five members of the Sciuridae family found in our area. The other “sciurids” are the eastern gray squirrel, the red squirrel, the northern flying squirrel and the woodchuck.

I know that someone out there is primed and ready for the debate that starts with the question, “Are they all squirrels?” But, I don’t have the energy to get into that right now.

The eastern chipmunk differs from the other small squirrels in the fact that it nests underground, rather than up in trees, but if you look at its dentition (the arrangement of its teeth), you see that it is very clearly a rodent.

Rodents specialize on gnawing at tough food sources, which means they have pronounced and ever-growing incisors. They also have flattened molars for grinding their food, but no lateral incisors or canines and only a couple premolars. I was very interested to notice that the eastern chipmunk has only one premolar on the upper jaw, whereas the other species I have listed all have two maxillary premolars. The eastern chipmunk, it seems, is a little different.

But, don’t let the teeth fool you. Chipmunks specialize in opening tough foods, like nuts, but they are also quite willing to eat other foods, like fruits, insects (like grasshoppers), worms, bird eggs and even mushrooms. Like any student of wildlife, I had read this menu of foods and accepted that naturalists of old had seen these items ingested on a regular basis, even though I myself had never seen it.

Then, one day, while I was out playing with my new lens, I came upon a chipmunk enjoying a mushroom, and the world suddenly became a brighter place. This was not because I had gained new knowledge, but rather because I knew at that moment that there was at least one chipmunk in the world that wasn’t eating my birdseed.

Bill Danielson has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, and the Massachusetts State Parks. He has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 19 years and he also teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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