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The Cheeky Ways Chipmunks Operate

Take a “deep dive” into their burrows to learn more about the habits of this lovable valley rodent.

by Reed Sparling
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Next to gray squirrels, their rodent cousins, Eastern chipmunks are probably the most frequently spotted mammal in parks and backyards throughout the Hudson Valley. But how much do you really know about these cute critters with the chubby cheeks? Take a deep dive into the chipmunks’ underground home and discover some pretty wild facts.

Up close with an Eastern chipmunk in the Hudson Valley. (Photo: Dana Montague)

What’s in a name? “Chipmunk” undoubtedly has Indigenous origins, perhaps coming from the Algonquin word jidmoonh (pronounced chit-moon), meaning squirrel. The chipmunk’s Latin name, Tamias striatus, translates as “striped storer,” referring to its tendency to stockpile food.

The story behind those stripes. The black and white lines on a chipmunk’s back offer camouflage from predators. An Indigenous legend provides a colorful account of their origin. According to the story, a chipmunk chided a bear for being too boastful about its strength. Enraged by the criticism, the bear tried to capture the chipmunk, which managed to reach the safety of its burrow — but not before having its back raked by the claw of its outsized foe.

Stuffing those “chipmunk cheeks” is a real phenomenon. (Photo: Dana Montague)

Chipmunk homes are marvels of interior design. Their multi-level abodes contain several chambers — for sleeping, food supplies, even a “bathroom” — all connected by tunnels spanning up to 30 feet. To expand their burrows (often originally the homes of other creatures, such as woodchucks, that have moved on), chipmunks use their front feet to dislodge the soil and cheek pouches to deposit it elsewhere.

They store up to a gallon of seeds and nuts for sustenance during the winter. In times of famine, European colonists and Indigenous peoples sometimes dug up these caches to supplement their diets with the chipmunks’ high-protein fare. The animals’ cheek pouches serve as “shopping bags,” to deliver food to their underground pantry.

The black and white lines on a chipmunk’s back offer camouflage from predators. (Photo: Dana Montague)

Chipmunks don’t hibernate. While they do spend much of the winter sleeping, they wake up every few weeks to grab a meal from their food chamber and go to the bathroom. Occasionally, during midwinter thaws, they’ll even leave their burrows to replenish supplies. The rest of the year, if chipmunks aren’t on the lookout for more food, they’re snoozing — up to 15 hours a day.

They are solitary and polygamous. Female chipmunks mate with numerous partners, but share their burrows with none. Normally, they breed twice a year, in early spring and midsummer, delivering anywhere from two to eight naked, blind, and totally helpless offspring. In six weeks, the young begin venturing outside the burrows and leave Mom for good at eight weeks old. 

Whenever they’re not sleeping, chipmunks are virtually always on the lookout for food. (Photo: Dana Montague)

Chipmunks communicate through a number of calls — chips” and “chucks” that discourage other chipmunks from entering their territory or alert them to danger from a vast array of predators (including owls and hawks, coyotes and foxes, raccoons, and even squirrels). Interestingly, chipmunks also respond to danger calls from woodchucks, scooting toward their burrows when they hear this animal’s high-pitched alarm whistle. 

They have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, the cartoon chipmunks created by Ross Bagdasarian in 1958, are honored at 6600 Hollywood Boulevard. For their singing talents — including “The Chipmunk Song,” which has sold more than five million copies — the rhyming rodents have won five Grammy Awards and had three certified platinum albums.

Chipmunks design elaborate underground burrows. (Photo: Dana Montague)

Chipmunks help sustain a healthy ecosystem. By hoarding seeds and berries, chipmunks support new growth of trees and shrubs. They also eat fungi, and help to scatter spores of some species that have lost the ability to disperse their spores through the air.

And they’re helping biologists understand the impacts of climate change.  A study by a Fordham University biologist revealed that during warmer winters — when chipmunks remain active — they have a much lower survival rate than during traditionally cold seasons, when they spend most of their time sleeping and out of reach of predators. This data could have important implications in understanding how climate change will affect all mammals that depend on a long winter’s rest. 

Reed Sparling is a staff writer and historian at Scenic Hudson. He is the former editor of Hudson Valley Magazine, and currently co-edits the Hudson River Valley Review, a scholarly journal published by the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

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editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
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