Picnics and Little Rodents

Homey and his family journeyed to the Upper County last weekend for a day in the woods along the Cle Elum River. Somewhere in there, they apparently shared a picnic with little furry guests.

“You know,” he said, “those chipmunks are just miniature rats with furry tails. …But they know how to keep the attention of ten- and twelve-year-olds. It was a great kickoff to summer, but all the way back, Mel was wanting to argue about whether they were really chipmunks. All those little guys are chipmunks, Right?”

As you know, as chair of the Wildlife Education Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA), I am sworn to set aside all other interests to answer such questions. Thus, this week’s exploration.

Think about it: what is a picnic or camping trip without those little ground squirrels? Their friendly hustle, bustle and scurry delights children of all ages. We mostly just call them “chipmunks,” but only three of Washington’s eleven ground squirrels are the real deal.

One ground squirrel or another will be found most anywhere in our state. It may be the tiny least chipmunk (four inches long, one ounce) or the hoary marmot (30 inches and fifteen pounds) or one somewhere in between. It will eat seeds, nuts, berries, flowers, grasses, leaves and insects.

All eleven are ground squirrels, but not all the striped ones are actually chipmunks (which all do have stripes). So which is which? We can easily eliminate our three marmots from the quest, along with the spotted, or dappled, ground squirrels. It now becomes a simple matter to separate chipmunks from the lined ground squirrels; chipmunks all have “masks.”

There are less obvious differences, too. Consider how these critters survive winter.

Chipmunks do not hibernate. They may appear to hibernate in some locales, but they generally put away food for winter, to be used between quite a few several-day-long underground naps. (In some Native American cultures, this trait is a teaching – a reminder – of gathering and preparing for winter. The chipmunks of Paradise are the least, Townsend=s and yellow-pine, and are quite similar in appearance (even experts can have trouble differentiating among them). The Townsend=s is most widespread, and most likely at your table, but any one of them could bound up to your family during your next picnic or camping trip.

Our three marmot types (yellow-bellied, hoary and Olympic) are found in rocky pasture areas from the lower foothills to well above timberline. They hibernate, having laid on masses of body fat to see them through winter.

The remaining five of our ground squirrels (California, golden-mantled, Columbian, Cascade golden-mantled and Townsend=s) are also generally hibernators, surviving winter on body fat reserves.

In keeping with the by-laws of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I offer the following scientific names for our Washington ground squirrels. Marmots: yellow‑bellied (Marmota flaviventris), hoary (Marmota caligota), and Olympic (Marmota olympus). Chipmunks: yellow-pine (Tamias amoenus), least (Tamias minimus), and Townsend=s (Tamias townsendii). Ground Squirrels: California (Spermophilus beecheyi), golden‑mantled (Spermophilus lateralis), Columbian (Spermophilus columbianus), Cascade golden-mantled (Spermophilus saturatus), and Townsend=s (Spermophilus townsendii).

To learn more, check out the National Audubon Society=s “Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest,” or any of several good field guides. If you are interested in Native American views of these or others of the animals of Paradise, I recommend “Medicine Cards” by Jamie Sams and David Carson.

They’ll find you at most any picnic. Look closely, laugh and enjoy. Resist the urge to touch them or to feed them. They may carry fleas, and they have a nasty bite. Then, too, as with all the other critters we enjoy in the woods they must survive after we leave.

And remember: chipmunks have masks.


Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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