Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.
Eastern Chipmunks Are Complicated Critters
The Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is a type of ground squirrel. Love him or hate him, he's a complicated critter who leads a busy life, and it is unlikely you take him as seriously as he takes himself.
He works all day, pretty much from dawn to dusk, collecting food to get him through the winter. Every so often he has to take a break to defend his territory against another annoying chipmunk, and on days when things really get bad, he has to duck a nasty predator. It isn’t easy being a chipmunk!
There probably aren't many people in the United States or Canada who have never seen a chipmunk, but if you live in the western part of North America it is possible you've never seen one quite like this. These guys are only found in the Eastern US and Canada. Officially they're supposed to live in wooded areas and forests but try telling them that. You're just as likely to find them in your yard, shrubs, and around your bird feeder.
In fact, around the bird feeder is where many chipmunks get themselves into trouble. If you don't put out birdseed you may notice a chipmunk or two. But if you have taken steps to make your yard more bird-friendly with a few feeders and water features, within a couple of seasons you'll have a horde of chipmunks hopping all over the place.
Chipmunk vs. You
Eastern Chipmunks will steal seed from your bird feeder throughout the spring and summer, pack it in their cheeks and dash off to stock it in their burrows. If they can get away with it they will empty your entire feeder in the course of one afternoon.
Chipmunks can cause other problems too. They can damage gardens, burrow under sidewalks and patios, and sometimes even get trapped in houses. Chipmunks can be more than just an annoyance. Just ask anyone who's had to repeatedly fill in the dirt under their sidewalk or patio because some chipmunk decided it was a great place to make a home.
So what are we supposed to do with these chirpy little rodents when they're demolishing our carefully built bird habitat or patio?
Before you go all Elmer Fudd, first take a few moments to better understand the Eastern Chipmunk and how we can deal with this relentless backyard visitor.
How to Chipmunk-Proof a Bird Feeder
For many people, keeping chipmunks away from their birdseed is their main issue with these little rodents. Some of the same options that work well for keeping squirrels away from your bird feeder also work for chipmunks.
If you chuckled a little at that last sentence it’s understandable. Sometimes it seems like nothing can keep a squirrel away from your feeder, and it can be the same way with chipmunks. But there are a few options out there where you might find success.
Squirrel-proof feeders don’t stop chipmunks from coming around but can stop them from taking your seed. Or, at least slow them down. The chipmunks will still manage to scrounge the seed that birds knock on the ground, and cleaning up the excess seed daily might deter them a bit. At least they won’t be able to wipe out your whole feeder in a few hours, even if they're still hanging around.
Also, note that the type of squirrel-proof feeder that works by closing in reaction to a squirrel's weight may not work with chipmunks. I have had the best results with tube feeders with small openings that don't allow the chipmunk to reach the seed.
Squirrel baffles can sometimes work. However, like squirrels, some chipmunks are more easily baffled than others. Chipmunks will find the cleverest ways to get to a feeder you’d otherwise think they’d never reach.
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It seems like placing your feeder away from any trees or branches and putting it on a pole with a baffle would make it tough for chipmunks to get to. The only problem is this setup exposes both birds and chipmunks to aerial predators. It’s always better to have a bird feeder placed where there is a tree canopy overhead, so birds feel safer and have more protection.
The best you can do is try different ideas and see if you can’t deter those chipmunks from coming around.
The Chipmunk and Your Garden
If you are frustrated with your local chipmunk population it may seem to you they eat nothing but birdseed and flower bulbs. But it may shock you to know that chipmunks exist in places where there are no bird feeders or gardens! Yes, it's true! So, if these little jerks weren't gorging themselves on your expensive sunflower-seed mix, what would they be eating?
In addition to seeds, nuts, and fruit the Eastern Chipmunk will eat insects, snails, bird’s eggs, and even small animals like baby mice or baby birds. Not so cute all of a sudden, eh? Like most rodents, chipmunks are very opportunistic feeders, and there aren’t many foods they’ll turn down.
Chipmunks may also steal the bulbs from your flowers or vegetable garden. They may also dig up newly planted sprouts. It is tremendously frustrating if you are trying to plant a few vegetables or herbs in pots on your deck and the chipmunks keep digging everything up. Just add one more thing to the list of offenses caused by annoying little rodents.
One way to deal with chipmunks digging in your potted plants and vegetables is to install a mesh barrier with openings large enough to let in plenty of sunlight, but too small for a chipmunk to pass through. Be sure to secure it tightly, as the Eastern Chipmunk is a clever problem-solver.
For larger gardens, low fencing may work. Make sure it is buried deep so chipmunks can't burrow under.
Chipmunks dig burrows with many different chambers, and they can be quite elaborate. So one important thing to realize is that he isn't trying to wreck your patio just for spite; he's trying to build his home.
The opening to the burrow is often hard to spot, and one of the reasons is because they fill in the first tunnel they made while excavating and make a new, more inconspicuous entrance. A tunnel with a big pile of dirt around it pretty much screams “Chipmunk lives here!” to predators, so they’re smart enough to hide their tracks.
You can try filling in the holes chipmunks make, but they'll either dig it out again or create another exit from their underground labyrinth. Even if you killed them off, others would move in soon enough, in the very same burrows.
Just as with a garden, you may try installing edging or fencing around your patio and walkways, making sure to dig it in several inches to prevent chipmunks from burrowing under. The Humane Society recommends installing an L-shaped footer to prevent burrowing animals from getting under a foundation or walkway.
The more you know about the Eastern Chipmunk the better you can understand why they do the things they do. Chipmunks are interesting in their own right, even though they may cause you a few headaches. Learning to enjoy their behaviors and antics may make their presence a little more bearable. Here are a few things to watch out for:
- If you see chipmunks wrestling in your yard they may look cute, but they might not be playing. During certain times of the year, chipmunks can be territorial.
- Chipmunks each have their own little home ranges of roughly half an acre, but the problem is that territories often overlap
- In the absence of any deterrents, chipmunks will crowd their territories around food sources like bird feeders and compete for space.
- Chipmunks chirp, or chip, when they’re alarmed, or when trying to ward another chipmunk away from their territory. Often they’ll stand at attention on their hind feet and chip away until the threat disperses.
- When one chipmunk senses danger and starts chipping, it’s not usual to hear his neighbors chime in as well. Female chipmunks will also do this to attract a mate.
- Chipmunks overwinter in their burrows, which they have taken the time to stock all summer long.
- During the winter, chipmunks fall into a state called torpor, meaning their metabolism and body temperature drops for short periods of time.
- Over the winter months, every few days chipmunks wake up, have some food, take care of any other business and go back to bed. This is very different than a bear, for example, who won't eat, drink or excrete during its hibernation phase.
- On the first warm days in spring, you’ll see chipmunks popping out. If it gets cold again, they disappear back into their burrows.
How to Deal With Them Without Losing Your Mind
Hopefully, you didn't read this far expecting advice on where to purchase a chipmunk-seeking missile or some kind of flame thrower that penetrates underground burrows. There is no easy way to eliminate chipmunks around your home.
While predators like hawks, cats, and snakes may keep their numbers at normal levels in the wild, in suburban settings chipmunks can get out of control. The easy access to human food sources, including bird feeders, can cause a population explosion
The best solution is to learn to enjoy their presence and take precautions for the potential havoc they may cause. Try squirrel baffles to keep them off of your feeder, placing special barriers where you don’t wish chipmunks to dig, and use a wire screen when planting flower bulbs.
If you are only concerned about them stealing your birdseed, take it from one who has been there: It's best to just learn to live with them, and consider chipmunks just another backyard visitor along with the songbirds.
If you have chipmunks in your yard hopefully you can appreciate them without letting them cause you stress. The Eastern Chipmunk doesn't realize how much he's annoying you. He's just trying to get by.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
dave wisconsin on May 09, 2020:
Honestly, Chipmunks are more of a blessing than a curse. As annoying as it is to fill in little holes in the soil by our plants, just having them around is great. We have learned that feeding them peanuts and sunflower seeds keeps them from digging as much and now they just dig if they want to take dust baths and it doesn't really bother the plants. Some of the chipmunks that we feed have gotten friendly and will jump in our hands to be fed and even let us pet them. We stopped trying to kick the chipmunks out of our garden about 5 years ago and our garden hasn't suffered at all (we put our berry plants up on shepard's hooks). Chipmunks are amazing and friendly creatures, it's much better to just enjoy them.