The Chipmunk TaxiJul 30, 2020 11:25AM ● By Karey Solomon
Something strange was happening in my garden. Plants burgeoning with health in the morning were dying or had disappeared by afternoon. Closer inspection showed the main sprouts of cucumbers were bitten through and sometimes mostly eaten, despite their discouraging little spines. Tomatoes were simply bitten through and left in place to wither, discarded after that first taste, but each tasted hopefully, as if a mother somewhere kept encouraging her children to just try this.
The mystery remained unsolved until an early morning garden visit scattered dozens of chipmunks having a political discussion by the beets, sack races down the garden rows, and an exercise class near the chard. Later that morning I caught the first one of the day in a Havahart live trap and drove it to an unpopulated area to let it go. I brought the empty trap back to reset with peanut butter and soon had another.
Eastern chipmunks, those cute stripey acrobats often seen running with their tails in the air like happy cats, are among the busiest of rodents. Found throughout the eastern U.S., they hibernate in cold weather, so they need to eat and gather food when it’s warm. A lady chipmunk can produce up to five pups every few months, so she could easily be eating for six. When she finds what she wants, she’ll stuff her cheeks with the bounty. Chipmunk cheeks hold more than your pockets—birdseed, berries, nuts, and whatever she finds in my garden, including whatever I wanted to harvest that she got to only five minutes before I decided to pick it.
While their usual wild habitat is woodland, they’ll also happily condescend to enjoy a garden thoughtfully planted by their human neighbors. Further down on the list, but still potential living spaces a chipmunk can work with—or, from the human perspective, seriously damage, are your house, car, and lawn.
You know you’ve got chippies in residence when you find holes in your lawn, about three inches in diameter. These are barely the tip of the iceberg where a chipmunk residence is concerned. There can easily be more than thirty feet of burrow below-ground (or extending into your house foundation), a complicated feat of rodent engineering that includes a nest for hibernation as well as drainage channels, food storage cavities, several ways of getting out, and a few blind alleys for indoor exercise. They’re supposedly solitary creatures, though apparently several dozen can easily cotton simultaneously to the same good idea about your house, lawn, or garden.
Their curious natures, acrobatic ability, and sharp, always-growing teeth lead them to explore and chew on any place their noses lead them. Fences can’t keep them out. They laugh at chicken wire. Discouragement may slow them down but they have the persistence of creatures who know for a certainty they’ll outlast us.
This year, thanks to the little Havahart, I’ve made the acquaintance of many memorable individuals. There are philosophic ones who sit down to eat all the peanut butter and polish the plate, then calmly wait for their car ride to a new location. When the cage is opened, they pause for a moment and ask “Really? There’s not going to be any more peanut butter? Okay, then I guess I’d better see what’s in these woods.” There are the really nervous ones who run back and forth in the cage, wringing their paws, too keyed up to eat, and tromping through the peanut butter with their feet. Release the gate and they hang back saying, “No, I don’t believe it. It’s a cruel joke. They’ll close the door before I can get through it.” Then they back up for momentum before flying through with the speed of toothpaste leaving the tube after a good hard squeeze.
Ms. Two didn’t want to leave at all. Ms. Eight did a tap dance in the cage on her way to release. A passerby stopped to find out why my car was stopped and when the driver learned I was releasing a chipmunk, cheerfully offered me thirty more—“free!”—from his own farm. Number Ten was one of the nervous ones, but was delighted to see I’d released her near a set of chipmunk-sized holes in a woodside embankment. She immediately popped down one of them, then backed out thoughtfully, a look of dread on her face. Mr. Eleven, a philosophic and cheerful fellow, ate the peanut butter and bounded out to climb a tree, gazing around his new domain with a look of approval before scampering off to make new friends. And no, I don’t really know their genders. I’ve just randomly assigned the male persuasion to odd numbers on general principles.
I’ve often seen one in the cage with three or four friends sitting nearby, offering sympathy and advice. There are six holes in the beet area and two more near the lemon basil. None, for some reason, by the garlic. And I know there are a few clever ones who managed to grab the peanut butter and leave before the gate closed, not sticking around to hear what I had to say about it.
If it weren’t for the garden, they’d be welcome to stay. They’re cute and fun to watch. They’re good sports about relocation. Even in enforced departure, they’re model passengers. Though I placed a layer of newspapers under the cage, it remains pristine—their car manners are more thoughtful than those of my cat on the way to the vet. They listen without interrupting while I drive, and cordially accept my best wishes when I let them go. The adventure continues as the reserves are far from depleted. And that might not be a bad thing. Though they destroyed part of the garden, at least they entertained me in the process. I’d like to think that’s mutual.