Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Can’t say for sure what it is, but there’s just something about a chipmunk that makes people smile. It doesn’t seem to matter where the chipmunk is or what it’s doing – you might spot one sitting atop an old stump munching on an acorn, cautiously peering around a stack of firewood, or high tailing it across a forested trail. Doesn’t matter. Even the briefest, snapshot glimpse of a playful ‘chippie is all it takes to make us feel happy.
Familiar to most folks through the mischievous antics of cartoon characters portrayed by Alvin and the Chipmunks, chipmunks are every bit as endearing in real life as they are on screen. If you haven’t already made your acquaintance with a member the real-life version, there’ll likely never be a better time than right now. Although there is no hard data or official wildlife survey to back me up, I’m going to say that Iowa chipmunks are enjoying some very high times.
Populations currently thriving at my hometown of Clear Lake are a prime example. From McIntosh Woods to Ventura Heights, Clausen’s Cove and beyond, local woodlands are literally jumping with these energetic little mammals. This year, you don’t even need to go to the woods to find chipmunks. Even in our most highly developed residential neighborhoods, it is not uncommon to see a high tailed chipmunk dashing across the patio or scurrying through backyard gardens.
With chipmunk numbers booming, I decided to attempt some serious viewing. A nearby abandoned woodpile seemed like an ideal location for closeup observations. Although it’s a place where I could rely on seeing one or two ‘chippies in the past, things have dramatically changed. Last week, I counted a record breaking eight chipmunks – all in full view, in one place at, one time. Movements in nearby thick cover belied the presence of others. The place had become overrun.
Officially launching my ‘Munking Adventure the very next morning, I set a portable photo blind just a few yards from the woodpile. My arrival did not go unnoticed. Perturbed by my intrusion, I could hear the bird-like chirping of nearby ‘chippies while I was still setting up. Fortunately for me, chipmunks are almost as curious as they are wary. Nearly as soon as I had settled in, the first inquisitive head popped over the top of a short log. Within minutes, a second, third, and finally a fourth ‘chippie had joined the party. From there, it was game on and I quickly lost track of who was who as a dizzying procession of chipmunks scurried around, over, in and through the woodpile. It was nothing like I had ever seen. Chipmunks were running everywhere! The outing was so interesting and so much fun, in fact, that I couldn’t resist returning again the next morning for an encore performance.
One thing I learned during the safaris is that chipmunks love to eat. From the time they leave their cozy burrows in early morning until day’s end, they rarely stop foraging. Equipped with roomy, plus-sized cheek pouches, chipmunks engage in an endless cycle of filling and refilling these built-in, permanently attached shopping bags. Once its pouches are stuffed to capacity, the ‘chippie runs back to its burrow where the groceries are cached in storage chambers prepared especially for that purpose. It’s the chipmunk’s version of a bank savings account, a cash reserve of acorns and seeds that will see its owner through a long cold winter.
Not all chipmunks live to benefit from the rainy-day funds. A four-ounce package of pure nutrition, chipmunks are an important link in the woodland food chain. While we think of them as cute; hawks, owls, and snakes regard them as tasty. As sure as sunflower feeders attract chickadees, a plentiful supply of chipmunks will attract predators – a fact that was vividly illustrated when an adult red fox suddenly appeared on the scene. In spite of arriving with a stunning burst of speed, the fox was unsuccessful at catching its meal. Undaunted, the predator sat down to await its next opportunity. But the word was out. In the blink of an eye, the entire woodland prey base had vaporized. When nothing showed, the fox soon became bored and moved on; quickly melting back into the greenery of the dense foliage. Within minutes it was back to business as usual as foraging chipmunks began darting back and forth, greedily refilling their cheek pouches as if nothing had happened.
Not all chipmunks are so fortunate, of course. A classic, firsthand example occurred a few years back when Carol and I visited the newly renovated scenic overlook located at Clayton county’s Pike’s Peak State Park. While enjoying the overlook’s spectacular view of the upper Mississippi river, we noticed a number of unusually tame chipmunks. The reason soon became obvious. Visitors were providing the ‘chippies with an endless supply of snacks – pretzels, potato chips, Cheetos and more – which the happy little rodents were packing away with enthusiasm.
While still enjoying the view, a sudden movement caught my eye. Looking to the side, we were amazed to see a beautiful red-shouldered hawk lifting from the bluff with one of the park’s snack loving chipmunks held firmly in its grasp. The chipmunk was still struggling as the hawk soared out over the river. But although still alive, the chipmunk’s fate was sealed. Even if it had bitten the hawk hard enough to make the raptor release its grip, the chipmunk would have faced at least a 400-foot fall to the water. From the frying pan to the fire, as they say.
On a lighter note, what may have been my most bizarre encounter occurred while on a fishing trip to northern Minnesota’s Kabetogama Lake. I was sitting on the steps of our Harmony Beach cabin one evening when a ten or twelve-year-old boy came slowly riding down the graveled road on his bicycle. Nothing out of the ordinary, except the boy was holding a short fishing rod in one hand. The rod was trailing about of twenty feet of line and bouncing along at the end of that line, was an unshelled peanut attached to a large fish hook by means of a rubber band. It was a puzzling sight.
“Hey buddy, what in the world are you doing?”, I asked as he passed by.
“I’m trolling for chipmunks,” came his grinning reply.
Wow. Have to admit that I didn’t see that one comin’.
I still chuckle when I think of that kid. Sadly, I never did hear if that bouncing peanut triggered any strikes.