10 Things You Don't Know About Chipmunks

These diminutive ground squirrels are as complex as they are charismatic.

eastern chipmunk sitting on rocks
The eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) thrives in a variety of habitats across eastern North America.

Gilles Gonthier/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Chipmunks are as cute as can be, with their enchanting eyes, bushy tails, striped backs, and chubby cheeks. You may have seen these tiny rodents darting around your yard or nearby woodlands. Or you may know them from Hollywood. Walt Disney introduced his animated chipmunk duo, Chip and Dale, in 1943, and 15 years later Ross Bagdasarian captured America’s heart with three chipmunk brothers—Alvin, Simon, Theodore—singing their musical hit “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).”

But these pudgy-faced charmers are so much more than that. The following chipmunk trivia—touching on everything from their complex personalities and food habits to their social proclivities and living preferences—may just surprise you. Tiny doesn’t always mean simple.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

You don't have to go to a wilderness reserve to experience nature, it's all around us in our cities and suburbs. Critters like chipmunks and squirrels are important players in our ecosystems, and we hope learning more about them will inspire us all to participate in conservation efforts in our own backyards.

1. They Need About 15 Hours of Sleep Per Day

At least that’s true of chipmunks in captivity. If their wild cousins require the same amount of snooze time, then all that zippy scampering you see outside has to get done during a nine-hour window each day.

2. They Are a Type of Squirrel

Weighing in at 1 to 5 ounces (28 to 142 grams), chipmunks are among the most diminutive members of the squirrel family. That means these pocket-sized rodents are also related to woodchucks and prairie dogs, which share a branch on the squirrel family tree as well.

3. North America Hosts the Most

Siberian chipmunk
The Siberian chipmunk occurs across central Russia, China, Korea, and northern Japan. Frank Vassen/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

There are 25 species of chipmunks, ranging mostly from Canada to Mexico across a variety of stomping grounds from forests to deserts to suburban neighborhoods. Only one species, the Siberian chipmunk, makes its home outside North America, scampering over much of northern Asia as well as in Europe, where it was introduced via the pet trade in the 1960s.

4. They Prefer Subterranean Living

chipmunk burrow
Chipmunks prefer to burrow in woodlands and other spots that provide adequate camouflage. massmatt/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

While some chipmunks make nests in logs or bushes, most prefer to dig vast underground burrows. These hidden homes typically include a camouflaged entrance hole, tunnel systems that can stretch 10 to 30 feet (3 to 9 meters) long, food storage areas, and a nesting chamber that is kept immaculately clean and lined with leaves and other plant matter.

5. Chipmunks Have a Lot of Predators

chipmunk standing up on hind legs to look around
A chipmunk surveys the surroundings near the base of Mount Hood in Oregon. waymoreawesomer/Getty Images

Just about any carnivore bigger than one of these little critters is a potential threat. That includes owls, hawks, weasels, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, lynxes, cats, dogs, snakes, and sometimes even their own squirrel cousins. Chipmunks avoid becoming meals by being quick and nimble—and sticking close to home. These speedy escape artists remain ever-vigilant while out foraging for food, racing away at the first sign of danger down their burrow hole, into the brush, or even up a tree.

6. They Have a Lot of Food Sources, Too

eastern chipmunk sitting on mossy log and stuffing cheek pouches with food
An eastern chipmunk stuffs its cheek pouches with food at Lambton Shores in Ontario, Canada. Brian Lasenby/Getty Images

Chipmunks aren’t picky eaters and spend a lot of time searching for their next meal, including at bird feeders (as many annoyed homeowners can attest). These omnivores love nuts, berries, seeds, mushrooms, insects, frogs, earthworms, lizards, baby birds, and bird eggs. During late summer and fall, they begin carrying extra food back to their burrow in their ample, stretchy cheek pouches (which can hold a stash three times the size of their head). National Geographic reports that a hardworking chipmunk can gather as many as 165 acorns in a single day. This foraging also benefits the larger ecosystem; chipmunks spread seeds and important mycorrhizal fungi that live around tree roots, ensuring they thrive.

7. Some Chipmunks Hibernate, but Not Continuously

Starting in late October, some chipmunks fall into a deep sleep with a slowed heart rate and lower body temperature for extended periods until March or April. At that point, depending on the year, they may have to dig through as much as three feet of snow to get out of their burrows. Unlike bears, though, chipmunks don’t bulk up their fat stores to sleep through the entire cold season. Instead, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, they wake periodically to dip into their stockpile of nuts and seeds and even venture outside.

8. They Are Especially Adorable as Newborns

baby chipmunk at about 10 days old
This baby chipmunk is about 10 days old. legna69/Getty Images

Baby chipmunks (called kits, kittens, or pups) are born blind, hairless, and helpless in the spring, usually in litters of three to five. Imagine something that looks like a pink jelly bean. Pups weigh a mere three grams, but develop quickly and leave the nest by 4 to 6 weeks of age to make their own way in the world. Sometimes you can spot tiny chipmunks running around outside—a sight that's even cuter than their diminutive parents, as hard as that is to believe.

9. They're Natural Loners

Despite their reputation for cuddly camaraderie in cartoons, real chipmunks don’t bear much resemblance to their fictional counterparts. They will fiercely defend their territory and chase away any invading strangers. In fact, they’re mostly solitary creatures—at least until breeding season arrives. Twice a year in spring and late summer, males (called bucks) and females (does) come together to mate, then part ways again. Female chipmunks raise the pups, but don’t remain close to their offspring once they leave.

10. Solitary Doesn't Mean Silent

No, they don’t sing like Alvin and his brothers, but chipmunks do have a sizable vocal repertoire, announcing everything from territorial claims to terror over nearby predators. Vocalizations include chips, chucks, and trilling alarm calls. In fact, chipmunks are so talkative, and their high-pitched communications are so ubiquitous, many people mistake them for bird calls.

View Article Sources
  1. "Chipmunk". CT.Gov - Connecticut's Official State Website.