Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bleah! Snow!


This morning I spied my little resident chipmunk for the first time this year. At least I think it’s the same chipmunk I had so much fun watching last summer as he stuffed his cheeks full of the sunflower seeds the birds unwittingly tossed down to him from the birdfeeder. As chipmunks tend to be solitary creatures, except during mating season, it’s a fair assumption. Today he was perched on top of a miniature adirondack chair overturned in my garden, probably wondering what all that white stuff was on the ground. Poor guy. He probably didn’t expect to find snow and below normal temperatures when he finally emerged from his winter home. Time to put that Hawaiian shirt away and go back to sleep.

Chipmunks are actually ground-dwelling squirrels. They spend a good deal of their life in underground burrows. The Donald Trumps of chipmunkville can have quite extensive burrows with a storage chamber for the food gathered all summer, a sleeping room, a dump for those sunflower seed shells, and a latrine. Some even have several concealed chambers. 

Unlike their tree dwelling cousins who do not hibernate, chipmunks can drop their body temperature to within a few degrees of the burrow to conserve energy. While we tend to associate hibernation with bears, chipmunks do not have the ability to store fat the way a bear does. A bear can go all winter without eating, but a chipmunk will raise its body temperature every few days, raid the pantry, use the latrine and then go back to sleep.

Thankfully, chipmunks are plentiful and only one species, the Palmer’s chipmunk which lives in a very small area of Nevada, is on the endangered species list. However, scientists have found that due to our changing climate, chipmunks living in areas where temperatures are getting warmer are less likely to hibernate during the coldest months. While chipmunks that hibernate enjoy a healthy survival rate of 87%, those that choose to remain active during the winter are almost certain to die before spring. This discover doesn't bode well for other hibernating species living in these warming climates.

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