10 Things You Don't Know About Chipmunks

The eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is an endearingly common sight throughout the eastern U.S. and southern Canada, inhabiting a variety of habitats from deciduous forests to urban parks. Gilles Gonthier/Wikimedia Commons

For sure, they’re cute as can be with their enchanting big eyes, bushy tails, striped backs and chubby cheeks. You’ve probably seen these mini rodents darting about your yard or nearby woodlands. Or you know them from Hollywood. Walt Disney introduced his animated chipmunk duo, Chip and Dale, in 1943, and 15 years later Ross Bagdasarian Sr. captured America’s heart with three chipmunk brothers — Alvin, Theodore and Simon — 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.

They need 15 hours of sleep a 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, says Wildlife Animal Control.

They're kin to squirrels

Weighing in at 1 to 5 ounces, chipmunks are the most diminutive members of the squirrel family, according to the National Wildlife Federation. 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.

North America hosts the most

Siberian chipmunk
The Siberian chipmunk is native to Asia and is commonly found across central Russia, China, Korea and northern Japan. Frank Vassen/Wikimedia Commons

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, according to National Geographic. 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.

They prefer subterranean living

chipmunk burrow
Chipmunks prefer to burrow in woodlands and other spots that provide adequate camouflage. massmatt/flickr

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

Chipmunks have a boatload of predators

chipmunk on hind legs
This chipmunk stands on its hind legs possibly scouting for predators. Patrick/flickr

Just about any carnivore bigger than one of these bitty critters is a potential threat. Think owls, hawks, weasels, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, lynxes, cats, dogs, snakes, and sometimes even their own red squirrel cousins, says National Geographic. Chipmunks avoid becoming meals by being quick and nimble — and sticking close to home. These super-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.

They also have a boatload of food sources

chipmunk with cheeks full
Chipmunks fill their cheek pouches to bursting with nuts and seeds and carry them back to their burrows for winter snacking. Gilles Gonthier/flickr

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, lizards, baby birds and bird eggs, according to Bi-State Wildlife Hotline. During late summer and fall, they begin carrying extra food back to their burrow in their ample cheek pouches (which can hold a stash three times the size of their head). This foraging also benefits the larger ecosystem — chipmunks spread seeds and important mycorrhizal fungi that live around tree roots, ensuring they thrive.

Watch a chipmunk stuff six acorns into its cheeks in this video.

Chipmunks hibernate, but not continuously

Starting in late October they fall into a deep sleep with a slowed heart rate and lower body temperature for extended periods until March or April. Unlike bears, though, chipmunks don’t bulk up their fat stores to sleep through the entire cold season. Instead they wake periodically to dip into their stockpile of nuts and seeds and even venture outside, says the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

They're not adorable at birth

Baby chipmunks (called kits, kittens or pups) are born blind, hairless and helpless. Imagine something that looks like a pink jelly bean. Pups develop quickly, though, and leave the nest by 4 to 6 weeks of age to make their own way in the world.

They're born loners

Despite their reputation for cuddly camaraderie in cartoons, real chipmunks don’t bear much resemblance to their big-screen counterparts. 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.

Solitary doesn't mean silent

cover of Alvin and the Chipmunks album
Cover of a 1961 album featuring beloved singing chipmunk trio, Alvin, Theodore and Simon. Tom/flickr

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, according to National Geographic. 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.

Listen to some chipmunk cries here. Check out more in this video.