Chipmunks and Ground Squirrels – Tiny Fun

Sometimes, topics just become obvious.

I was weighing options for this week’s column, and was about settled on that old standby about the conflicts between moral values and day-to-day living. I especially enjoy thinking about the conflicts relating to those sudden magic moments when veganism, spiders, rattlers, birdseed, plastic, leather and fruitcakes all merge. Sadly, that will simply have to wait. Again.

You may recall that Deborah Essman – the Bird Whisperer of Paradise – recently presented her program on birds and wildlife of the Quilomene. The event was the July joint meeting of the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club and the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA). Her photos ranged from excellent to spectacular, and what really caught my attention was her correct identification of a tiny ground squirrel. This was to the consternation of a couple audience members who had instantly, and in error, whispered, “Chipmunk.” Time is always spent wisely with a well-prepared and well-presented nature program.

In line with how the universe usually puts these things together, a couple homeys stopped me in front of the Ellensburg Pet Center the next morning. They had been enjoying a number of great day hikes and picnic lunches in the hills around us, and were curious about all the little chipmunks they encountered. (“Or were those little squirrels?”) As chair of the Wildlife Education Subcommittee of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I am sworn to set aside all other interests to settle such confusions.

This is important stuff, really. After all, what is a picnic or camping trip without ground squirrels? Their friendly hustle, bustle and scurry delights children of all ages. To most of us they are just “chipmunks,” but only three of the eleven ground squirrels in Washington are the real deal.

One ground squirrel or another will be found most anywhere in our state. It could be a tiny least chipmunk (four inches long, one ounce), a hoary marmot (30 inches and fifteen pounds), or one of the in-betweens. Whichever, 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, as well as the spotted or dappled ground squirrels. Simple, now, to separate chipmunks from lined ground squirrels; chipmunks all have “masks.”

In addition to the masks, there are other, less obvious, differences.

While they seem to hibernate in some locales, chipmunks generally put away food for mid-winter snacking in between 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 one chipmunk from another). The Townsend=s is most widespread, but any one of them could race up to your table during your next picnic or camping trip.

Our three marmots are found in rocky pasture areas from the lower foothills to well above timberline. They do not store food; they lay on masses of body fat to see them through winter’s hibernation.

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

In keeping with the by-laws of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I offer the following scientific names for our 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 another good field guide. You may be interested in Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson.

Our little ground squirrels will find you at most any picnic. Look closely, laugh and enjoy. Resist the urge to feed them, as they may carry fleas – or bite – and they must still survive after you leave.

And remember, chipmunks have masks.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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