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The Chipmunk

The first chipmunk in March is as sure a token of the spring as the

first bluebird or the first robin, and is quite as welcome. Some genial

influence has found him out there in his burrow, deep under the ground,

and waked him up, and enticed him forth into the light of day. The red

squirrel has been more or less active all winter; his track has dotted

the surface of every new-fallen snow throughout the season. But the

hipmunk retired from view early in December, and has passed the

rigorous months in his nest, beside his hoard of nuts, some feet

underground, and hence, when he emerges in March, and is seen upon his

little journeys along the fences, or perched upon a log or rock near his

hole in the woods, it is another sign that spring is at hand. His store

of nuts may or may not be all consumed; it is certain that he is no

sluggard, to sleep away these first bright warm days.

Before the first crocus is out of the ground, you may look for the first

chipmunk. When I hear the little downy woodpecker begin his spring

drumming, then I know the chipmunk is due. He cannot sleep after that

challenge of the woodpecker reaches his ear.

Apparently the first thing he does on coming forth, as soon as he is

sure of himself, is to go courting. So far as I have observed, the

love-making of the chipmunk occurs in March. A single female will

attract all the males in the vicinity. One early March day I was at work

for several hours near a stone fence, where a female had apparently

taken up her quarters. What a train of suitors she had that day! how

they hurried up and down, often giving each other a spiteful slap or

bite as they passed. The young are born in May, four or five at a birth.

The chipmunk is quite a solitary creature; I have never known more than

one to occupy the same den. Apparently no two can agree to live

together. What a clean, pert, dapper, nervous little fellow he is! How

fast his heart beats, as he stands up on the wall by the roadside, and,

with hands spread out upon his breast, regards you intently! A movement

of your arm, and he darts into the wall with a saucy _chip-r-r_, which

has the effect of slamming the door behind him.

On some still day in autumn, one of the nutty days, the woods will

often be pervaded by an undertone of sound, produced by their

multitudinous clucking, as they sit near their dens. It is one of the

characteristic sounds of fall.

I was much amused one October in watching a chipmunk carry nuts and

other food into his den. He had made a well-defined path from his door

out through the weeds and dry leaves into the territory where his

feeding-ground lay. The path was a crooked one; it dipped under weeds,

under some large, loosely piled stones, under a pile of chestnut posts,

and then followed the remains of an old wall. Going and coming, his

motions were like clock-work. He always went by spurts and sudden

sallies. He was never for one moment off his guard. He would appear at

the mouth of his den, look quickly about, take a few leaps to a tussock

of grass, pause a breath with one foot raised, slip quickly a few yards

over some dry leaves, pause again by a stump beside a path, rush across

the path to the pile of loose stones, go under the first and over the

second, gain the pile of posts, make his way through that, survey his

course a half moment from the other side of it, and then dart on to some

other cover, and presently beyond my range, where I think he gathered

acorns, as there were no other nut-bearing trees than oaks near. In four

or five minutes I would see him coming back, always keeping rigidly to

the course he took going out, pausing at the same spots, darting over or

under the same objects, clearing at a bound the same pile of leaves.

There was no variation in his manner of proceeding all the time I

observed him.

He was alert, cautious, and exceedingly methodical. He had found safety

in a certain course, and he did not at any time deviate a hair's breadth

from it. Something seemed to say to him all the time, "Beware, beware!"

The nervous, impetuous ways of these creatures are no doubt the result

of the life of fear which they lead.

My chipmunk had no companion. He lived all by himself in true hermit

fashion, as is usually the case with this squirrel. Provident creature

that he is, one would think that he would long ago have discovered that

heat, and therefore food, is economized by two or three nesting


One day in early spring, a chipmunk that lived near me met with a

terrible adventure, the memory of which will probably be handed down

through many generations of its family. I was sitting in the

summer-house with Nig the cat upon my knee, when the chipmunk came out

of its den a few feet away, and ran quickly to a pile of chestnut posts

about twenty yards from where I sat. Nig saw it, and was off my lap upon

the floor in an instant. I spoke sharply to the cat, when she sat down

and folded her paws under her, and regarded the squirrel, as I thought,

with only a dreamy kind of interest. I fancied she thought it a hopeless

case there amid that pile of posts. "That is not your game, Nig," I

said, "so spare yourself any anxiety." Just then I was called to the

house, where I was detained about five minutes. As I returned I met Nig

coming to the house with the chipmunk in her mouth. She had the air of

one who had won a wager. She carried the chipmunk by the throat, and its

body hung limp from her mouth. I quickly took the squirrel from her, and

reproved her sharply. It lay in my hand as if dead, though I saw no

marks of the cat's teeth upon it. Presently it gasped for its breath,

then again and again. I saw that the cat had simply choked it. Quickly

the film passed off its eyes, its heart began visibly to beat, and

slowly the breathing became regular. I carried it back, and laid it down

in the door of its den. In a moment it crawled or kicked itself in. In

the afternoon I placed a handful of corn there, to express my sympathy,

and as far as possible make amends for Nig's cruel treatment.

Not till four or five days had passed did my little neighbor emerge

again from its den, and then only for a moment. That terrible black

monster with the large green-yellow eyes,--it might be still lurking

near. How the black monster had captured the alert and restless squirrel

so quickly, under the circumstances, was a great mystery to me. Was not

its eye as sharp as the cat's, and its movements as quick? Yet cats do

have the secret of catching squirrels, and birds, and mice, but I have

never yet had the luck to see it done.

It was not very long before the chipmunk was going to and from her den

as usual, though the dread of the black monster seemed ever before her,

and gave speed and extra alertness to all her movements. In early summer

four young chipmunks emerged from the den, and ran freely about. There

was nothing to disturb them, for, alas! Nig herself was now dead.

One summer day I watched a cat for nearly a half hour trying her arts

upon a chipmunk that sat upon a pile of stone. Evidently her game was to

stalk him. She had cleared half the distance, or about twelve feet, that

separated the chipmunk from a dense Norway spruce, when I chanced to

become a spectator of the little drama. There sat the cat crouched low

on the grass, her big, yellow eyes fixed upon the chipmunk, and there

sat the chipmunk at the mouth of his den, motionless, with his eyes

fixed upon the cat. For a long time neither moved. "Will the cat bind

him with her fatal spell?" I thought. Sometimes her head slowly lowered

and her eyes seemed to dilate, and I fancied she was about to spring.

But she did not. The distance was too great to be successfully cleared

in one bound. Then the squirrel moved nervously, but kept his eye upon

the enemy. Then the cat evidently grew tired and relaxed a little and

looked behind her. Then she crouched again and riveted her gaze upon the

squirrel. But the latter would not be hypnotized; he shifted his

position a few times and finally quickly entered his den, when the cat

soon slunk away.

In digging his hole it is evident that the chipmunk carries away the

loose soil. Never a grain of it is seen in front of his door. Those

pockets of his probably stand him in good stead on such occasions. Only

in one instance have I seen a pile of earth before the entrance to a

chipmunk's den, and that was where the builder had begun his house late

in November, and was probably too much hurried to remove this ugly mark

from before his door. I used to pass his place every morning in my walk,

and my eye always fell upon that little pile of red, freshly-dug soil.

A little later I used frequently to surprise the squirrel furnishing his

house, carrying in dry leaves of the maple and plane tree. He would

seize a large leaf and with both hands stuff it into his cheek pockets,

and then carry it into his den. I saw him on several different days

occupied in this way. I trust he had secured his winter stores, though I

am a little doubtful. He was hurriedly making himself a new home, and

the cold of December was upon us while he was yet at work. It may be

that he had moved the stores from his old quarters, wherever they were,

and again it may be that he had been dispossessed of both his house and

provender by some other chipmunk.

I have been told by a man who says he has seen what he avers, that the

reason why we do not find a pile of fresh earth beside the hole of the

chipmunk is this: In making his den the workman continues his course

through the soil a foot or more under the surface for several yards,

carrying out the earth in his cheek pouches and dumping it near the

entrance. Then he comes to the surface and makes a new hole from

beneath, which is, of course, many feet from the first hole. This latter

is now closed up, and henceforth the new one alone is used. I have no

doubt this is the true explanation.

When nuts or grain are not to be had, these thrifty little creatures

will find some substitute to help them over the winter. Two chipmunks

near my study were occupied many days in carrying in cherry pits which

they gathered beneath a large cherry-tree that stood ten or twelve rods

away. As Nig was no longer about to molest them, they grew very

fearless, and used to spin up and down the garden path to and from their

source of supplies in a way quite unusual with these timid creatures.

After they had got enough cherry pits, they gathered the seed of a sugar

maple that stood near. Many of the keys remained upon the tree after the

leaves had fallen, and these the squirrels harvested. They would run

swiftly out upon the ends of the small branches, reach out for the maple

keys, snip off the wings, and deftly slip the nut or samara into their

cheek pockets. Day after day in late autumn, I used to see them thus


As I have said, I have no evidence that more than one chipmunk occupy

the same den. One March morning after a light fall of snow I saw where

one had come up out of his hole, which was in the side of our path to

the vineyard, and after a moment's survey of the surroundings had

started off on his travels. I followed the track to see where he had

gone. He had passed through my woodpile, then under the beehives, then

around the study and under some spruces and along the slope to the hole

of a friend of his, about sixty yards from his own. Apparently he had

gone in here, and then his friend had come forth with him, for there

were two tracks leading from this doorway. I followed them to a third

humble entrance, not far off, where the tracks were so numerous that I

lost the trail. It was pleasing to see the evidence of their morning

sociability written there upon the new snow.

One of the enemies of the chipmunk, as I discovered lately, is the

weasel. I was sitting in the woods one autumn day when I heard a small

cry, and a rustling amid the branches of a tree a few rods beyond me.

Looking thither I saw a chipmunk fall through the air, and catch on a

limb twenty or more feet from the ground. He appeared to have dropped

from near the top of the tree.

He secured his hold upon the small branch that had luckily intercepted

his fall, and sat perfectly still. In a moment more I saw a weasel--one

of the smaller red varieties--come down the trunk of the tree, and begin

exploring the branches on a level with the chipmunk.

I saw in a moment what had happened. The weasel had driven the squirrel

from his retreat in the rocks and stones beneath, and had pressed him

so closely that he had taken refuge in the top of a tree. But weasels

can climb trees, too, and this one had tracked the frightened chipmunk

to the topmost branch, where he had tried to seize him. Then the

squirrel had, in horror, let go his hold, screamed, and fallen through

the air, till he struck the branch as just described. Now his

bloodthirsty enemy was looking for him again, apparently relying

entirely upon his sense of smell to guide him to the game.

How did the weasel know the squirrel had not fallen clear to the ground?

He certainly did know, for when he reached the same tier of branches he

began exploring them. The chipmunk sat transfixed with fear, frozen with

terror, not twelve feet away, and yet the weasel saw him not.

Round and round, up and down, he went on the branches, exploring them

over and over. How he hurried, lest the trail get cold! How subtle and

cruel and fiendish he looked! His snakelike movements, his tenacity, his


He seemed baffled; he knew his game was near, but he could not strike

the spot. The branch, upon the extreme end of which the squirrel sat,

ran out and up from the tree seven or eight feet, and then, turning a

sharp elbow, swept down and out at right angles with its first course.

The weasel would pause each time at this elbow and turn back. It seemed

as if he knew that particular branch held his prey, and yet its

crookedness each time threw him out. He would not give it up, but went

over his course again and again.

One can fancy the feelings of the chipmunk, sitting there in plain view

a few feet away, watching his deadly enemy hunting for the clue. How his

little heart must have fairly stood still each time the fatal branch was

struck! Probably as a last resort he would again have let go his hold

and fallen to the ground, where he might have eluded his enemy a while


In the course of five or six minutes the weasel gave over the search,

and ran hurriedly down the tree to the ground. The chipmunk remained

motionless for a long time; then he stirred a little as if hope were

reviving. Then he looked nervously about him; then he had recovered

himself so far as to change his position. Presently he began to move

cautiously along the branch to the bole of the tree; then, after a few

moments' delay, he plucked up courage to descend to the ground, where I

hope no weasel has disturbed him since.

One season a chipmunk had his den in the side of the terrace above my

garden, and spent the mornings laying in a store of corn which he stole

from a field ten or twelve rods away. In traversing about half this

distance, the little poacher was exposed; the first cover on the way

from his den was a large maple, where he always brought up and took a

survey of the scene. I would see him spinning along toward the maple,

then from it by an easy stage to the fence adjoining the corn; then back

again with his booty. One morning I paused to watch him more at my

leisure. He came up out of his retreat and cocked himself up to see what

my motions meant. His forepaws were clasped to his breast precisely as

if they had been hands, and the tips of the fingers thrust into his vest

pockets. Having satisfied himself with reference to me, he sped on

toward the tree. He had nearly reached it, when he turned tail and

rushed for his hole with the greatest precipitation. As he neared it, I

saw some bluish object in the air closing in upon him with the speed of

an arrow, and, as he vanished within, a shrike brought up in front of

the spot, and with spread wings and tail stood hovering a moment, and,

looking in, then turned and went away. Apparently it was a narrow escape

for the chipmunk, and, I venture to say, he stole no more corn that

morning. The shrike is said to catch mice, but it is not known to attack

squirrels. The bird certainly could not have strangled the chipmunk, and

I am curious to know what would have been the result had he overtaken

him. Probably it was only a kind of brag on his part--a bold dash where

no risk was run. He simulated the hawk, the squirrel's real enemy, and

no doubt enjoyed the joke.

The sylvan folk seem to know when you are on a peaceful mission, and are

less afraid than usual. Did not that marmot to-day guess my errand did

not concern him as he saw me approach there from his cover in the

bushes? But, when he saw me pause and deliberately seat myself on the

stone wall immediately over his hole, his confidence was much shaken. He

apparently deliberated awhile, for I heard the leaves rustle as if he

were making up his mind, when he suddenly broke cover and came for his

hole full tilt. Any other animal would have taken to his heels and fled;

but a woodchuck's heels do not amount to much for speed, and he feels

his only safety is in his hole. On he came in the most obstinate and

determined manner, and I dare say if I had sat down in his hole would

have attacked me unhesitatingly. This I did not give him a chance to

do, and he whipped into his den beneath me with a defiant snort. Farther

on, a saucy chipmunk presumed upon my harmless character to an unwonted

degree also. I had paused to bathe my hands and face in a little trout

brook, and had set a tin cup, which I had partly filled with

strawberries as I crossed the field, on a stone at my feet, when along

came the chipmunk as confidently as if he knew precisely where he was

going, and, perfectly oblivious of my presence, cocked himself up on the

rim of the cup and proceeded to eat my choicest berries. I remained

motionless and observed him. He had eaten but two when the thought

seemed to occur to him that he might be doing better, and he began to

fill his pockets. Two, four, six, eight of my berries quickly

disappeared, and the cheeks of the little vagabond swelled. But all the

time he kept eating, that not a moment might be lost. Then he hopped off

the cup, and went skipping from stone to stone till the brook was

passed, when he disappeared in the woods. In two or three minutes he was

back again, and went to stuffing himself as before; then he disappeared

a second time, and I imagined told a friend of his, for in a moment or

two along came a bobtailed chipmunk, as if in search of something, and

passed up, and down, and around, but did not quite hit the spot.

Shortly, the first returned a third time, and had now grown a little

fastidious, for he began to sort over my berries, and to bite into them,

as if to taste their quality. He was not long in loading up, however,

and in making off again. But I had now got tired of the joke, and my

berries were appreciably diminishing, so I moved away. What was most

curious about the proceeding was, that the little poacher took different

directions each time, and returned from different ways. Was this to

elude pursuit, or was he distributing the fruit to his friends and

neighbors about, astonishing them with strawberries for lunch?

On another occasion I was much amused by three chipmunks, who seemed to

be engaged in some kind of game. It looked very much as if they were

playing tag. Round and round they would go, first one taking the lead,

then another, all good-natured and gleeful as schoolboys. There is one

thing about a chipmunk that is peculiar: he is never more than one jump

from home. Make a dive at him anywhere and in he goes. He knows where

the hole is, even when it is covered up with leaves. There is no doubt,

also, that he has his own sense of humor and fun, as what squirrel has

not? I have watched two red squirrels for a half hour coursing through

the large trees by the roadside where branches interlocked, and engaged

in a game of tag as obviously as two boys. As soon as the pursuer had

come up with the pursued, and actually touched him, the palm was his,

and away he would go, taxing his wits and his speed to the utmost to

elude his fellow.

I have observed that any unusual disturbance in the woods, near where

the chipmunk has his den, will cause him to shift his quarters. One

October, for many successive days, I saw one carrying into his hole

buckwheat which he had stolen from a near field. The hole was only a few

rods from where we were getting out stone, and as our work progressed,

and the racket and uproar increased, the chipmunk became alarmed. He

ceased carrying in, and after much hesitating and darting about, and

some prolonged absences, he began to carry out; he had determined to

move; if the mountain fell, he, at least, would be away in time. So, by

mouthfuls or cheekfuls, the grain was transferred to a new place. He did

not make a "bee" to get it done, but carried it all himself, occupying

several days, and making a trip about every ten minutes.