Living with Chipmunks: A look at one of Snoqualmie Valley’s day shift mammals

One of my earliest memories is driving over Snoqualmie Pass in the back of my parents VW Squareback. No seatbelts, trading off in the way back with my older sister. We played with paper dolls on the way to one of my Dad’s
National Bank of Commerce accounts in Eastern Washington. It was my parent’s way of having a vacation with little money. We’d stay in hotels with pools and play while Dad worked. On the way over, we’d stop at the Pass, I’d torture my sister by hanging over some steep outlook, my mom would shout at me and I’d feed the chipmunks bits of my lunch.

I was fascinated by the little striped creatures. I grew up in Bellevue where the only daytime rodent we generally saw was an occasional gray squirrel. Now I know better than to hand feed any rodent bread, but I’m still fascinated by the adorable stretchy-faced, chirping creatures in my yard. We don’t see many mammals during the day because they are nocturnal meaning: active at night. But some animals (songbirds, rabbits and chipmunks to name a few), are diurnal, which means: active during the day. In fact, “active” might be a bit of an understatement when it comes to these brightly-marked, chirping creatures. Aptly nicknamed the “timber tiger” in some parts of the country, Washington State is home to four species. North America claims all but one species of chipmunk. The Siberian chipmunk is the exception living in Asia.

A member of the order rodentia (rodent: from the latin Rodere, “to gnaw”), the most common in Washington State is the Yellow-pine. This species is absent from the Western Washington lowlands, but is common in the sub- alpine-alpine (4,000 feet or above) areas of the Cascades and Olympics. The Least Chipmunk is a tiny fierce beast who lives in the Sagebrush of the southernmost Columbia basin. The Red-tailed Chipmunk is in the far northeastern mountains of Washington. This rodent was once thought to be the same species as the yellow-pine, but some industrious researcher noticed the animal had a larger bony structure called the “baculum” in his penis (there’s a thing you know now) and a new species was named.

In the Snoqualmie Valley we are home to the Townsend’s Chipmunk. Named after a 19th century Ornithologist, John Kirk Townsend, it is the largest of the four in the state. Up to 11 inches long, including the tail, the Townsend weighs 2 to 4 ounces.  Females are 2 to 6% larger than males leading to female dominance in the population. I guess in Washington chipmunk size matters in more ways than one! They have brown coats with five dark and four light brown stripes on their backs. Their faces have three brown and two gray stripes. You can distinguish them from other chipmunks by the fact that they do not have a dark stripe from nose to eye.

Townsend’s Chipmunks family in North Bend yard. Photo: Melissa Grant

In captivity, several specimens are said to have lived to nine or ten years, but the average in the wild is somewhere between 2 and 7 years with an average of about 5. They are preyed upon by weasels, bobcats, housecats, martens, coyotes, owls, hawks and snakes in our area. Breeding occurs for two weeks in early spring when food is plentiful so their young can mature before winter comes. Whether or not they hibernate depends on climate. Some remain active all year long, while some stay in their protected nests or burrows. They spend spring, summer and fall hoarding nuts and seeds which they carry to their nests in stretchy cheek pouches. Omnivores they eat a variety of nuts, plants, seeds, berries, insects and bird eggs.

They are described as one of the shyer breeds of chipmunk and you must watch carefully to spy them. I have to say anecdotally this has not been my experience, but maybe I have a heck of a shock coming if I ever meet another type. My yard is noisy with their chirps, chuffs and chitters. Solitary animals, some have speculated that females give alarm calls to warn related chipmunks of danger even though doing so might put them in danger. Males generally disperse and this behavior is less common among them. A female-dominated chipmunk society that practices altruism is in my backyard! Ok, the science isn’t settled on that one, but it’s a really cool concept.

Chipmunks may at times seem like nothing but a nuisance, but they play several important roles in forest ecosystems. They consume fungi and seeds, making them crucial in seedling and dispersal of spores. Some truffles have lost the ability to disperse their spores through air by co-evolving with mycophagus (fungi eating) mammals and need the symbiotic relationship to survive.

So yes, they are small but mighty. I consider picking up that leftover pile of fireplace stones every year, but now I think I’ll just leave it and leave the chipmunks who live there to their important work.

[Melissa is a North Bend resident, pet trainer, wildlife and outdoor enthusiast and owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs.]

Townsend’s Chipmunk. Photo: Melissa Grant
Townsend’s Chipmunk eating peanut. Photo: Melissa Grant

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Living Snoqualmie