For the Birds Radio Program: Chipmunk

Original Air Date: Aug. 16, 1989

After 8 years on Peabody Street, Laura finally has a chipmunk visiting her feeders! (3:57)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Chipmunk)

We’ve lived in our house in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth for 8 years now, and yet it wasn’t until last week that we finally got one visitor at our feeders that most people consider common, and even take for granted. Even though it’s a lowly mammal instead of a bird, I consider it one of the most welcome guests I’ve ever had in my yard—a chipmunk.

I grew up in Chicago, where I never once saw a chipmunk. My family spent a vacation in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when I was six, and my first looks at chipmunks in my life were all the proof I needed to be convinced that here was true wilderness. Over the next 30 years my concept of wilderness has become a little stricter, but my love for chipmunks has never diminished.

Chipmunks are sort of a mammalian version of Blue Jays—handsome, curious to the point of nosiness, clever, friendly if they feel like it but rude to their perceived enemies, and mischievous enough to quickly wear out their welcome with many humans. Both species raid songbird nests for eggs and young, and garbage cans for snacks. And both have an enormous liking for acorns and peanuts. It’s possible to tame either species to take peanuts from your hand, though chipmunks are a lot easier than jays. It took me a whole summer to get my neighborhood jays to grab peanuts from my fingers, and even after several years they never actually alight on me–they’d grab the treat on the wing and hightail it out of there in a hurry. I’ve had wild chipmunks hop onto my lap, and even poke their heads into my pockets for food–things no self-respecting jay would ever be caught doing.

Anyway, my own personal chipmunk has quickly learned the system in our yard. Whenever somebody knocks loud on the door, they’re about to let the dog out. The only animals we actually allow Bunter to chase are cats, but she apparently gave herself permission to chase rabbits and squirrels. She seems to understand instinctively that we wouldn’t like it if she actually caught one—she got in enormous trouble her second summer when she killed an Evening Grosbeak, and hasn’t forgotten it—so she leaves a little distance between herself and her quarry. Once I watched her chase a rabbit to the fence—the rabbit missed the low spot where he always squeezes under the fence and had to turn around with Bunter hot on his heels. But the moment the rabbit turned, Bunter backed up to give him space. Of course as soon as the rabbit made it next door Bunter barked loudly as if to remind the bunny just what would have happened if she caught it, but not even the rabbit was fooled—he sat down maybe 10 feet from her munching on dandelions. One time Bunter accidentally stepped on one gray squirrel while chasing another—it was shaken and a little hurt, but less so than Bunter’s guilt attack might have indicated.

Anyway, our chipmunk is Bunter’s favorite guest, because it runs up the box elder tree and squeaks obscenities that would best a lot of jays I know—Bunter never heard such colorful metaphors before.
Most of the time chipmunks feed on fallen birdseed rather than climbing into the feeder, and so people don’t mind them the way they do the bigger squirrels. But even on the ground they manage to find a lot of food, which they stuff into their cheek pouches and carry off. Blue Jays may not have cheek pouches, but they do have a throat pouch for the same purpose.

Our little chipmunk may not be as perfect, quite, as a Blue Jay, but I’m glad he found my yard, and hope he sticks around for a long time to come.

(Recording of a Pine Siskin)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”