Objectively one of the cutest inhabitant of Salem’s campus, the eastern chipmunk is also one of the hardest to catch on camera–especially during the winter when they hibernate in their burrows. Although dubbed the “eastern” chipmunk, this small rodent is not found in the eastern part of North Carolina and are most densely populated in the mountain region where there are the most forested areas. According to the Mammals of North Carolina website, chipmunk populations can be surprisingly local, such as being numerous in parts of Raleigh, but hard to find in nearby towns or forested areas with seemingly excellent habitat. Chipmunks are generally solitary–except during courtship or when rearing young.
The eastern chipmunk is a small, brownish, ground-dwelling squirrel. It is typically 5 to 6 inches long and weighs about 3 ounces on average. The eastern chipmunk has two tan and five blackish longitudinal stripes on its back, and two tan and two brownish stripes on each side of its face. The longitudinal stripes end at the reddish rump. The tail is 3 to 4 inches long and hairy, but not bushy. The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska reports that the diet of chipmunks consists primarily of grains, nuts, berries, seeds, mushrooms, insects and carrion. Although chipmunks are mostly ground-dwelling rodents, they regularly climb trees in the fall to gather nuts, fruits, and seeds. By storing and scattering seeds, they promote the growth of various plants. Chipmunks also prey on young birds and bird eggs, though they themselves serve as prey for several predators.
Eastern Chipmunks, or Tamias striatus, prefer to make their burrows adjacent to a rock or in a rock pile for protection, but may also burrow near the bases of trees, or under edges of buildings. Their nests are generally constructed below ground in an extensive burrow system. David Goforth, an Agriculture Extension agent for the NC Cooperative Extension Cabarrus County Center, writes that, during the winter, chipmunks have a “restless hibernation,” and do a lot of sleeping, but have stored food to snack on. This behaviour is aptly described by the eastern chipmunk’s scientific name, Tamias, which means ‘storer’. On warm, sunny days they may even get out and wander around. Most chipmunks emerge from hibernation in early March, so keep your eyes peeled for one of these racing rodents in the next month or so. Catching a glimpse of a chipmunk is truly a treat, and when you see them on the move they look like a flat piece of striped fur with their tail stuck straight up.