Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | April 6, 2020

My Chipmunk Brain


Chipmunks are cute, undeniably cute, but they also work so hard.  And the difficulties they face!  I appreciate those difficulties these days.  I didn’t always, but I did always think they were cute.  In fact, I thought they were cute the very first time I saw one. Then I was a young child, and I wanted one. I bet every child in North American felt the exact same way with his first chipmunk.  

I say North America because on no other continent do they exist.  You can Google it if you want.  Go ahead, try African Chipmunk.

Ah.  You’re feeling smug, aren’t you?  You see page after page in response to your prompt, but now, look at the first entry.  Disappointed?  You can try the rest, but you’ll still be disappointed.  Same thing is going to happen with Australia, Asia, Antarctica, Europe, and South America.

If you are a non-North American, you’ll have to settle for other, wee cute rodents that are not chipmunks.  For instance, the Cape Ground Squirrel; I find them pretty darn cute.  And the Hazel Dormouse is not only cute as cute can be, it’s unique –  the only species of the genus Muscardinus, so there.  You can run into a Hazel D. in all sorts of places:  Northern Europe, Asia Minor, the British Isles, and in County Kildare in the Irish Free Republic.  (On the same page I found Dwarf Mongooses which are seriously adorable, and even very tame, but they only look like rodents.  If you’re thinking of one for a pet, you may be put off by their best friends, Hornbills.  They’ll poop all over your house.)

For all I know, you have visited India’s west coast.  So, tell me, did you, while you were there, catch a glimpse of what you would swear was a chipmunk?  Yes?  Now, do you want to know what you really saw?  A Jungle Palm Squirrel, superficially close in appearance to our chipmunk.  In fact, in that part of the world, you might also maybe have caught a glimpse of a Nilgiri Striped Squirrel, maybe even a Lariscus Three-striped Squirrel, although that would be unlikely. Depends a little on how you feel about Borneo.

South America. Now wouldn’t you think if any other continent was going to have a chipmunk or chipmunk-like rodent, it would be South America?  After all, it’s more or less connected to North America.  But nope.  Not even a look-alike.  In fact, except for one I’ll tell you about in a bit, South America’s rodents are not an attractive bunch.  The easiest on the eyes, so to speak, is the guinea pig.  South America has all sort of those, but they eat them, like regular food.  Try this thought experiment:  cuddle up to a chicken, headless, featherless, wrapped up and on display in the meat department of your local supermarket.  How’s that? I  know. I didn’t like it, either. 

As I suggested, there is one very cute South American rodent:  the Andean Squirrel.  It’s a reddish-brown and only six inches long, not counting the tail which is also about six inches.  Don’t get your hopes up, though, because you’re probably not going to run into one of those unless you happen to be a fan of the cloud forests of the Columbian Andes. 

And by the way, what goes for South America, goes double for Australia, but without an exception.  For Australia, though, I do have a theory about why there are no cute rodents.  Once upon a time, there actually were cute ones.  Probably the Sandy Inland Mouse, or even the Heath Mouse, used to be cute as anything, but they stopped being cute maybe a couple thousand or so years ago.  Why? Snakes.  Australia is the poisonous snake capital of the world.  Think of what it meant to be cute way back when.  You know how cute things stand out?  Think Ruby Throated Hummingbird, or Lilac Breasted Roller.  See what I mean?  Those rodents, the cute ones, they were the first ones the snakes went after because they were so easy to spot.  So the cute ones had a choice:  do the Darwin thing PDQ or just give up and go extinct. Next thing you know, everywhere you go in Australia, nothing but drab, ordinary looking rodents, ordinary by Australian standards, that is.  Plus all those hungry poisonous snakes.

Back to my appreciating chipmunks.  I’m going to explain that.  When I lived in Connecticut, I liked to plant flowers in the beds around our house. The house was pretty big, so there was much to take care of.  It was in this time of my life that I no longer saw chipmunks as cute because they dig holes.  Their favorite digging ground is garden soil; it’s loose and really easy to dig in.  If they were digging dens for the winter, I might have looked on this chipmunk activity with less annoyance. But they were not.  They were just digging holes either to find food they’d buried the previous fall, or to hide food during the late summer and fall.  Every once in a while, if they were feeling peckish, say, they would have a gnaw or two of a plant’s roots, doing that plant worlds of no-good, but most of this activity seemed to be about holes for holes’ sake. I had to find out, and when I did, I also found out that chipmunks spend most of the winter hibernating, or giving a very convincing imitation of hibernating.  Mammal experts do not agree on whether chipmunks are or are not to be included in a list of mammals that hibernate.  So, I thought, what’s going on with the food holes?  Why do they need food if they’re going to sleep through the winter?

My problem with their holes was that those cute little buggers always chose to dig right next to a plant, most frequently an annual flowering plant, and that plant would die immediately, from the indignity, I figured.  Anyway, by the time I discovered the partially dug up plants, they were wilted dead. 

I tried all sorts of things to dissuade the chipmunks.  Fox urine, coyote urine – I might have even welcomed a poisonous Australian snake or two because the fabled Eastern Diamondback and the putatively shy Copperhead most certainly put not even the smallest dent in the chipmunk population.  So reluctantly I put out traps.

 In case you are wondering, mouse traps don’t bother chipmunks one bit.  Rat traps, on the other hand, worked pretty well.  They also work well on anything else at all that showed interest in the peanut butter I used for bait, specifically gray squirrels, red squirrels, blue jays, dogs, and cats. (I know, who ever heard of a cat that liked peanut butter?  Well, now you have.)  Happily I recognized how irresistible our pets found peanut butter, and stopped using rat traps before any damage was done, corporally or emotionally – I’m thinking of the cat with that last, my dog Emma would each day believe, today is the day the trap will not snap.  I moved on to electric traps. They’re like a little electric chair except it’s a box.  The makers of those execution chambers were thinking rats, but I can tell you they are perfect for chipmunks.  And field mice and the occasional vole.  Poor little things.  I gave all of them a nice burial, deep enough so the coyotes couldn’t get them even though coyotes have to eat, too, but leaving them out for the night crew would feel like insult to injury.

Now I’m in Arizona.  All I have are potted plants, and I’m no longer on the warpath for chipmunks.  It’s not that they don’t dig in pots, they do.  The difference is I’m old, and, as I said, I’ve come to appreciate what they and I have in common.  I keep a bucket of garden soil handy to replace the dirt the chipmunks displace. They never seem to want to dig in that bucket.  I wonder why that is?

So, what we have in common: If I were to make a list of the items I’ve taken down or moved or otherwise gotten out of the way, which I then put somewhere really smart, a place where those things would be safe … well, that would be a long, long list.  The things is, when I get around to noticing that a particular thing is missing, like for instance the plaque that was hanging in the kitchen that my Aunt Carol gave to my wife, Edie, whose maiden name was Rubino – “The only thing wrong with Italian food is that seven days later, you’re hungry again.”  I’d moved that to make room for a Christmas decoration.  After de-decorating, I wanted to put it back.  All I knew was to look in really smart places, which I did.  I haven’t found it yet.  I think I won’t find it until I want to put something else in a really smart place where it will be safe.  It only bothers me a little to know there’s at least one really smart place in this small house I apparently don’t know about.

See?  The chipmunks can’t remember where they hide their food so they just keep digging in likely (think smart) – and unlikely for that matter – places.  Once in a while they find something, probably more often than  I do.


Responses

  1. Love the Italian food quote, love the research that went into the rodent article, if I ever get to Australia, I’ll wear high boots, just in case a snake sees me before I see it (I won’t know the poisonous ones).  My sister was given a pair of chipmunks that escaped their cage and made a nest (one of many) in our piano.  They roamed the house for months before we figured out how to get them outside.   Hope you find the missing plaque!

  2. One summer, when I was a caretaker, many years ago and I had a nice little apartment up over the garage, there was an infestation of chipmunks. We were feeding the birds black oil sunflower seed and the chipmunks were chewing holes through the plastic garbage can that I kept the seed in. They leveled my herb garden. They actually started to come up the stairs to the upper level where I lived and into the house. It got so bad that one day I decided to sit out in the front yard at the picnic table with a revolver and a rifle, chambered in .22 Long Rifle. Three or four hours later, I had 27 chipmunks lined up on a plank, and a few got away. After that things got back to normal. Even things that are very cute can be most unpleasant if you are up to your neck in them.

    • Alas, I now live within the city limits. Picking off chipmunks would be frowned upon. I am, however,considering a pellet gun.


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