Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Whether you view them as reincarnation of those animated songsters, Theodore, Simon and Alvin, or you just consider them a nuisance, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) says chipmunks are one of the state’s most prevalent forms of wildlife.
Found throughout the state, chipmunks are tiny ground-dwelling members of the squirrel family that have a conspicuous stripe down their backs, sides and cheeks. They have hair on their tails, but do not have a bushy tail like their larger tree-dwelling cousins. Reddish brown with five black stripes, separated by lighter hair, from shoulder to rump, the little animals are usually eight to 12 inches from nose to tail with a total body weight of four or five ounces.
Although chipmunks prefer the borderland around stands of timber the may also live in open fields, near landscaping features on lawns, under stonewalls or near building foundations.
Known for their industrious gathering and storing of foodstuffs during warm weather, the tiny animals use all that stored material to feed themselves throughout the long months of winter.
Chipmunks prefer to eat nuts, seeds and berries, particularly hickory nuts, acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts and walnuts, however they will also eat corn and wheat, insects and their larvae, as well as worms, slugs, snails and other small animals and insects.
Although chipmunks can be found throughout the state, they are most prevalent right here in the Ozarks where the rocky ground provides a good burrowing habitat and acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts are abundant.
Chipmunks breed in the spring soon after they emerge from their underground homes. Most of their young are born in April and May and again in July and August. Females have one or two litters per year following gestation periods of approximately 31 days. The litters consist of anywhere from one to eight babies, although four or five youngsters per litter is most common.
The youngsters live with their mother in her underground burrow for the first month, then begin exploring above ground after four or five weeks.
For the most part chipmunks are solitary creatures and live entirely alone except during mating season and while the littermates are with their mother.
Chipmunks dig burrows with their front paws, kicking the dirt out of the way with their hind feet or pushing it aside with their heads. A chipmunk usually has only one main entrance to its burrow, although that burrow may be made up of only one large room, or sometimes a series of smaller rooms connected by long narrow tunnels.
Native only to North America and Asia, chipmunks can be found from the cold regions of Canada to the hot deserts of Mexico. The Asian chipmunks are found in Japan, Korea, and from central Russia to Siberia only. The Asian species of chipmunks are not, however, nearly as plentiful as most North American species, especially the Eastern chipmunk that lives here in Missouri and throughout the Midwest.
Although chipmunks are known to remain underground during the coldest months of the year, they are not typical hibernators as they must awaken and feed themselves frequently throughout the winter. Nevertheless, during the coldest months chipmunks may sleep for as long as eight weeks without waking up, but when the weather is warms the animals will awaken and spend time scampering about, feeding themselves and working to improve their underground habitat.
Some species of chipmunks hibernate for long periods, while others sleep only a few hours per day no matter what the weather is like above ground. And, occasionally the some species may emerge from their burrows when the winter weather warms, however they will always return to the underground warmth before nightfall.
In Missouri, the eastern chipmunk begins emerging from its burrow in mid-March and will be fully awake and looking for a mate by early April. In other areas, such as the northern states and Canada, the tiny animals may wait until May or even early June before venturing above ground.
Although many homeowners consider chipmunks more of a nuisance than anything else, the MDC says the tiny animals are of enormous benefit to the environment because their tunneling aerates the soil and checks erosion by diverting rain and snow runoff.
Additionally, the MDC says the food habits of chipmunks encourage healthy plant growth and provide a partial check for the overgrowth of certain insect species. And the chipmunks are themselves part of the food chain for larger wildlife species.
The MDC goes on to say that unlike other animals, for those who enjoy watching wildlife, chipmunks provide a continuous source of entertainment because they spend the daylight hours outdoors and do not take refuge underground until the evening and are, therefore, easily observed.
Extremely adventurous creatures, chipmunks are highly adaptable to their surroundings and can easily co-habit a plot of land alongside other wildlife, domestic pets and livestock and even humans. They learn quickly where to find food and are often seen scampering up and down trees and shrubs and even stealing the seed from birdfeeders.
For those who consider chipmunks a nuisance because of their habit of digging their burrows in lawns, under shrubs, in flower beds and around building foundations, the MDC says the best way to rid your property of the tiny animals is to use live traps and move the trapped animals to a location far away. However, here in the Ozarks, even if you trap several chipmunks on your property, don’t be surprised if you see others just a few weeks later for, as the MDC says, the eastern chipmunk is “an extremely clever creature that can adapt itself to a wider variety of environments.”