Field Notes-Nature's Perfect Expression Of Cute
Natureâs Perfect Expression Of Cute
By Curtiss Clark
His real name is Tamias striatus, but we call him Hoover.
Heâs an Eastern chipmunk who works the stonewall on the east side of our house, vacuuming up the seeds dropped there by the continuous scuffle of birds at the nearby feeders. Heâs twitchy, lightning fast, and thorough. These days heâs a very busy guy.
Hoover has an established network of passageways in the wall, and from what I have read about chipmunks, he also has a well-appointed chamber for his repose and a separate pantry.
Judging from his frantic work schedule in these last weeks before winter, he must have several pantries. Working quickly and methodically among the ground-feeding mourning doves, cardinals, and juncos, Hoover packs dozens of sunflower seeds at a time into his Dizzy Gillespie cheeks, races to the wall, and dives headlong into a hole. Moments later, his head pops out for a cautious look around, then he emerges for another sweep of the area. I suppose if I were to sit in my front row seat at the kitchen table all day long with a calculator counting cheek loads and trips to the wall, I could come up with an accurate estimate of the size of his winter larder. Just guessing, Iâd say heâs got 15 or 20 pounds of seeds in there by now.
I know for a fact Hoover has a comfortable bed of leaves for his long winter naps. I watched him select a hickory leaf twice his size and fold it carefully into his cheek pouches before disappearing into the wall. Creature comforts, they call it. I full expect to see a chimney and satellite dish emerge atop the wall before the first snow.
Chipmunks donât hibernate the way bears do. In the winter months, they sleep soundly for periods ranging from one to ten days. Then they rouse themselves for a snack in the pantry and head back to their leafy lair for another snooze. They sometimes emerge from their burrows during midwinter thaws looking for fresh eats and other opportunities, but they couldnât care less about their shadows. Thatâs a groundhog thing. When youâre ugly and lumpy and stuck in Punxatawny, youâve got to have a shtick to make your mark in the world. Chipmunks are classier than that.
When it comes to sheer attractiveness, thereâs not a rodent out there that even comes close to the chipmunk. With its big beseeching eyes, chubby cheeks, and warm russet color underlying five smart dark stripes, the Eastern chipmunk may be natureâs most perfect expression of cute.
In the world of cute, though, what is considered the cutest? If you ask a female chipmunk, as researchers have, she will tell you itâs the little guys that turn her on. This is an exception to the rule for most species where dominant males are bigger than their counterparts. Chipmunks are solitary creatures; they get together only to mate and, in the case of females, to rear their young. Mating always comes at the end of a chase, and by the time the big burly male catches up with the female, a little zippy guy has already staked his genetic claim to the next generation. Cute, eh?
The chipmunkâs biggest problem, however, is that he is mostly attractive as a meal. Every predator in the neighborhood â owls, hawks, coyotes, bobcats â just loves to snack on chipmunks. And domestic cats are the biggest threat. They can wipe out a chipmunk population in no time.
Our late great cat, Wiggy, was the most accomplished hunter I have known. We could put him out in the morning, and 60 seconds later he would be eviscerating a mouse or mole on the front porch. It was as though he had a rodent vending machine hidden away somewhere. We always forgave him for the slaughter because that is the nature of cats. But that forgiveness was withheld the longest when he delivered a chipmunk to the porch.
Wiggy met his end in a hunt â as prey not predator. A coyote got him. We keep our cats indoors now, so Hoover has one less thing to worry about.