Lively and speedy critters, chipmunks are small members of the squirrel family. Their pudgy cheeks, large, glossy eyes, stripes, and bushy tails have made them a favorite among animators, and landed them a series of starring roles in Hollywood.
Of the 25 species of chipmunks, all but one, Asia’s Tamias sibiricus, is found in North America. Ranging from Canada to Mexico, they are generally seen scampering through the undergrowth of a variety of environments from alpine forests to shrubby deserts. Some dig burrows to live in, complete with tunnels and chambers, while others make their homes in nests, bushes, or logs.
Depending on species, chipmunks can be gray to reddish-brown in color with contrasting dark and light stripes on the sides of their face and across their back and tail. They range in size from the least chipmunk, which, at 7.2 to 8.5 inches (18.5 to 21.6 centimeters) and 1.1 to 1.8 ounces (32 to 50 grams), is the smallest chipmunk, to the Eastern chipmunk, which grows up to 11 inches (28 centimeters) and weighs as much as 4.4 ounces (125 grams).
Chipmunks generally gather food on the ground in areas with underbrush, rocks, and logs, where they can hide from predators like hawks, foxes, coyotes, weasels, and snakes. They feed on insects, nuts, berries, seeds, fruit, and grain which they stuff into their generous cheek pouches and carry to their burrow or nest to store. Chipmunks hibernate, but instead of storing fat, they periodically dip into their cache of nuts and seeds throughout the winter.
Their shrill, repeated, birdlike chirp is usually made upon sensing a threat but is also thought to be used as a mating call by females. Chipmunks are solitary creatures and normally ignore one another except during the spring, when mating takes place. After a 30-day gestation, a litter of two to eight is born. The young stay with their parents for two months before they begin to gather their own provisions for the winter ahead.
For the most part, chipmunks, although susceptible to forest fragmentation, are not currently threatened. However, the Palmer’s chipmunk (Tamias palmeri) is considered a vulnerable species.