By Jim Poling Sr.
From Shaman’s Rock
They are everywhere.
In the 70 acres of bush that I call home in Haliburton County, I estimate there are nearly 300 of them, and many more just beyond my property lines. They have me surrounded and I have visions of them taking over the entire world.
An exaggeration? Well, wildlife researchers say that one acre of land could hold as many as 30 of them. You do the math: the world has 37 billion acres of land and if each acre has 30 of them, they total 111 billion, outnumbering us humans by 104 billion.
So yes, chipmunks are taking over the world. My world at least.
I can’t walk a short distance without having one or two scamper across my path. When I cut firewood with my chainsaw, one comes close and stares up at me with a look that says: “Why are you here making all that racket?”
When I’m eating lunch on the deck, another approaches with accusing eyes: “Sure, we let you share our land but you won’t share a morsel of your lunch!”
I don’t know where they all came from suddenly. There have been reports of chipmunk population explosions in parts of eastern Canada and the United States over the past two or three years. They have been regional increases, not widespread, with no definitive reasons.
Some wildlife experts say a milder winter and an abundance of acorns might be a reason.
Chipmunks in Canada usually have one litter of newborns a year while in the warmer south they have two litters – one in the spring and one in the fall. There is a theory that warming temperatures are shortening winters, allowing for two litters a year in parts of Canada.
Chipmunk litters usually are four to six kits, so an extra litter a year could increase populations significantly.
These little guys are cute and charming and amaze us with their busyness. They never stop scampering about, looking for things to eat and digging tunnels.
They store seeds, bugs and acorns in their little cheek pouches, which researchers say can hold more food morsels than most people would imagine. A researcher found that one chipmunk packed 60 sunflower seeds into one of its pouches.
Other research has determined that a four-ounce chipmunk can gather and store up to eight pounds of food a year in its underground burrow. Tunnelled burrows are as much as three feet below the ground surface and can be more than 30 feet in length.
The extensive burrowing is an issue for some people. They say that large numbers of tunnelling chipmunks can damage retaining walls, deck supports and even house foundations. Others say there is no real evidence that chipmunk tunnelling causes much landscape structural damage.
They can, however, give gardeners grief. This year we had no sunflowers because they dug up all the seeds we planted – several times. They also love to nibble on ripening tomatoes.
The biggest knock against chipmunks simply being fun little cuties came this year from Lake Tahoe, California. The United States Forest Service closed several popular Tahoe sites when bubonic plague was discovered among chipmunks there.
Bubonic plague occurs naturally in some higher elevations and is found in small rodents, such as chipmunks, and their fleas. Humans are infected if they are bitten by those fleas.
Bubonic plague, also known as The Black Death, killed millions of people around the world centuries ago. Today it is treatable and curable with drugs.
When chipmunk populations explode and damage lawns, gardens and flower beds, some people demand extermination programs. However, we humans need to accept that we just can’t kill everything that disturbs our treasured modern lifestyles.
The U.S. Forest Service understands that. When some Tahoe chipmunks were found with the plague last summer it said it would not start eliminating chipmunks. Controlling the fleas would be a better approach.
At any rate, chipmunks carrying the plague are not an issue in our part of the world. They pose no threat to us, if we watch them from a distance and don’t try to handle them.
As to them taking over the world, I guess that is an exaggeration. The little guys live only two or three years on average.