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Photographing Chipmunks
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III


It's a quiet sound that, at first, might not register on your mind.


It is a very persistent sound, an insistent sound, that is finally driven into your consciousness.


The call is a small one-note sound like the beating of a miniature anvil by a forest elf and, indeed, the sound you are hearing is the sound of a forest elf. The call is the alarm note of the eastern chipmunk. It is a ventriloquistic sound and could be coming from anywhere; it is coming from everywhere.
There are twenty-two species of chipmunks found in North America north of the Mexican border. Only two of the species, the eastern and least chipmunk are found east of the Mississippi River. These two species have the greatest range and are the ones most commonly seen; they are the ones we will be referring to in this column. All of the others are western chipmunks and most have very small ranges. Most of them are relatively unknown and a number are threatened with extinction due to habitat destruction.

All chipmunks have five dark stripes on their bodies, usually live in burrows in the earth or in rock piles, and are extremely alert and energetic. The chipmunks are often confused with the smaller members of the large ground squirrel family, particularly the thirteen-lined ground squirrel and the Mexican ground squirrel. It is easy to make this mistake as the ranges of the ground squirrels and the chipmunks do overlap. And both the thirteen-lined and golden-mantled ground squirrels also have dark body stripes. The latter looks exactly like a large chipmunk.

In the true chipmunk family, the eastern is the largest in both size and weight, measuring about ten inches in overall length, of which four inches is tail length. They weigh 3 to 4 ounces. The least chipmunk is about eight inches in overall length, but its tail is as long as its body, four inches. It weighs between 1 to 2 ounces.

Both chipmunks and beaver store food to be used in the winter. A beaver family will store one to two tons of leafy twigs, branches and even four inch to six inch logs in the mud at the bottom of their pond right outside the underwater entrance to their lodge. When their pond is frozen over with a thick layer of ice, preventing their coming out on the surface, the beaver feed upon the bark, leaves and twigs of their stored food.

Chipmunks store grain, weed seeds, acorns, other nuts, etc. in storage chambers they dig as side rooms in their underground system of tunnels which also have a bedding chamber and toilet. To help them haul back large quantities of seeds, they have bare skin storage pouches on the inside of their cheeks. The outside skin is very elastic, allowing for great expansion. By actual count, I have seen a chipmunk carry thirty-six whole kernels of field corn or thirty-eight large black oil sunflower seeds in its pouch at one time. One chipmunk that I examined, that had been killed by a car on the highway, had four hundred thirteen little grass and weed seeds stuffed into its pouches.
In doing research on chipmunks that frequent my bird feeding shelves, I recorded one chipmunk that carried off thirty-four to thirty-eight sunflower seeds to its burrow and made a round trip every seven minutes. It did this for hours on end and must have stored quarts and quarts of seeds. There is no way it could have eaten even a fraction of the food it carried off.
As mentioned, beaver also store food, but they know when they have enough and will stop; chipmunks never do. So long as food is available, the chipmunks will carry it off.

Chipmunks are not true hibernators as are many of the ground squirrels, woodchucks and marmots. With the advent of winter weather, the chipmunks retire into their burrows and sleep for eight to ten days. When they awaken, they feed upon some of the seeds that they have stored. Then it's back to sleep. If the weather moderates, as it does during a January thaw, the chipmunks will come out and run around a bit before retiring back into their dens.

Many folks do not realize that the chipmunks also stay in their dens for extended times during the last part of July and most of August. This sleep period allows them to escape from the hottest weather and is known as estivation. Chipmunks are usually active from about 7:00 a. m. until about 11:00 a. m. at which time they den up until about 3:00 p. m. and then are active until dark.

Most rural areas have lots of chipmunks if there are no cats in the immediate area. Hawks, weasels and snakes all feed upon chipmunks, but the house cat has to be their number one nemesis. My home is a nature sanctuary and I have numerous bird feeders that are filled year round. Several years ago I live-trapped nineteen eastern chipmunks out of our garden that measures fifty feet by twenty feet. We couldn't keep seeds in the ground. The trapped chipmunks were released in old stone rows that are found through all the forests in my area.

Chipmunk burrows are unique because they usually have only one entrance. The chipmunks dig the tunnels and pull and push all of the dirt out of the entrance hole and then scatter it. When the tunnel is dug up to the top of the earth, the exit hole has no dirt to betray its location because all of the dirt was taken out the entrance hole. The entrance hole is then packed solid, so it can no longer be used, and covered with leaves. The exit hole now becomes the entrance hole and is usually hidden by a leaf. As the hole is usually no larger than 1 ", it is very difficult to see, especially when covered with a leaf or two.

How do you find their burrows?

Simple, just do as you have to do when working with all wildlife; sit down and just watch. Having a food source, as the chipmunks do at my feeders or at the bait you put out for them, they will promptly attempt to haul it all back to be stored in their burrows. Just follow them at a discrete distance and they will lead you right to their burrow.

If you want to get pictures at their burrow, set your camera up on a Groofwin Pod to get it down to nearly ground level. Hook up a remote cord; move back and you are ready to shoot. To get the chipmunk to go in and out of the burrow frequently, put large bait just outside of the camera's viewpoint. Then you don't have to wait while the chipmunk makes a longer trip. Use large bait, such as corn or shelled peanuts so the chipmunk fills its pouches faster and returns sooner. The chipmunk usually pauses each time it comes out of its burrow; it usually just dives in when returning.

If you want to get photos of the chipmunk searching for food among the leaves, use fine millet birdseed; they love it but, being so small, the seeds won't show in your photos and it will take the chipmunk longer to fill its pouches.

If you have a piece of hollow log with a larger knothole in it, simply drop seeds around the outside and some seeds down inside the hollow. The chipmunk will climb right inside the hole and start to fill its pouches. Being a cautious type, the chipmunk will stick its head out of the log frequently to look for danger and you can get close-up shots of the pouches stuffed to capacity.

An interesting side note: When the chipmunk is filling its pouches with large seeds, it always alternates between the two pouches - first left, then right, then left, then right. That the chipmunk is able to completely seal off these pouches is proven by the fact that they often stop to drink water from my pond, even with bulging cheek pouches. They would not do this if there was any chance the seeds would get wet. Wet seeds could not be stored as they would mold and rot.

By using bait, you can get the chipmunks to climb up and sit on anything you want, even sitting on top of your spare camera. Chipmunks can climb trees almost as well as the squirrels and the least chipmunk sometimes builds a tree nest. I fully realize that you can't use bait when photographing in a National Park. You don't have too; everyone else will, especially the children. Picnic grounds are excellent places to photograph chipmunks.

Photographing chipmunks may not be as exciting as photographing bears, but they offer far more opportunities. I, for one, enjoy photographing everything I find in God's great out-of-doors.


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