Toronto Star

Summer’s a smorgasbor­d for cheeky chipmunks


It was a lazy, hazy July afternoon at the cottage. Not the barest breath of a breeze in the Madawaska meadow where I was standing motionless, waiting — hoping — to see one of the indigo buntings known to be in the neighbourh­ood.

The air, redolent with the combined scent of hot pine, sweetfern and a galaxy of wildflower­s — yarrow, blue vetch, ox-eye daisies, hawkweed and mullein — was alive with insects. Dragons and damselflie­s dashed about the blooms with bees, butterflie­s and moths in pursuit. (And judging by the bloodstain­s I noticed on the collar of my shirt later, there were more than a few biting insects, too.)

As perfect as the afternoon was, it was a poor time to be hunting birds. Most of the species reliably seen around this abandoned field — chestnut-sided warblers, American redstarts and vireos — had retreated deeper into the surroundin­g forest, where it was degrees cooler.

In the distance, a lone cicada buzzed its dirge-like tune and, just as I was thinking it might be a good idea to get out of the heat myself, I sensed motion deep in the raspberry patch some distance away. A chipmunk had scampered to the top of one of the prickly bushes, where he was calmly devouring the fruit.

Once I started paying attention during my daily peregrinat­ions, I began to see chipmunks at work in every raspberry patch in the district. Their usual modus operandi was to stand on the ground on their hind legs, then stretch themselves up so far it looked like their little stripes would break. Then, with a snap, they would grab at an overhead branch with their forepaws and pull it down. Then, quick, quick, that branch would be stripped of its berries. Ingenious.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to see chippies eating raspberrie­s, but it did. I had never really thought much about the diet of these little members of the squirrel family. If I considered them at all (aside from disliking Alvin and the boys), it was only as the bold and busy cottage rodent known principall­y for his lakeside larceny, his picnic table pilfery.

After our vacation in the Madawaska Valley, I read about the omnivorous diet of these rodents on the Hinterland Who’s Who website.

In the spring, when chipmunks leave the burrows where they overwinter­ed, they scrounge any seeds they can find from the previous summer, then eat shoots and leaves as new growth pushes through the warming soil.

As summer unfolds, there is a smorgasbor­d of food available to them: insects, worms, mushrooms, eggs, carrion, slugs, snails, young birds, salamander­s, young mice and even snakes. And so much fruit.

As the cooler days of fall arrive, the chipmunks’ platter continues to be full as seeds and nuts mature. It is these foodstuffs that the animals collect feverishly, transporti­ng them in their capacious cheek pouches to their undergroun­d larders where they will be stored for the winter.

While the huge variety of dinner options might make you think chip- pies have an easy life — all they have to do is tie on their best bib and tucker and head for the berry patch — there is a big downside to being a small rodent.

In the wild, chipmunks are preyed upon by weasels, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, martens, foxes and even some birds. It’s no wonder their lifespan averages a short three years.

Until the day they become another animal’s easy meal, though, chipmunks — at least in cottage country — have it pretty good. As our family left the Madawaska to return to our city lives, there was another crop of raspberrie­s ripening along every roadside and wild field in the area.

And August will soon be here. If you’re a chipmunk, that puts blackberri­es on the menu.

 ?? MARGARET BREAM/TORONTO STAR ?? With the evening sun on his back, a chipmunk pauses while devouring berries in the Madawaska Valley in July.
MARGARET BREAM/TORONTO STAR With the evening sun on his back, a chipmunk pauses while devouring berries in the Madawaska Valley in July.

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