If you have watched chipmunks in your yard, you’ve undoubtedly seen why the Disney writers and animators were inspired to create Chip and Dale. These little members of the Sciuridae family scurry around creating motion, mischief and occasional mayhem in the garden. They are often so abundant that gardeners feel like we might step on them every time we’re out watering pots or carrying plants from one spot to another. Most of the time, however, I don’t see chipmunks as a problem animal, although they are competition for my bread poppy seeds. I want some of my Papaver somniferum to self-seed in the gardens, but those dope-fiend chipmunks will get every one of the pods before the seeds ripen if I’m not attentive. They climb up the stem of the poppy, then use their weight to pull the seedpod to the ground where they can take it off and run away with it.
Occasionally I worry that their extensive tunnels near my stone wall might lead to the collapse of the entire area, and I wonder if their holes in and among my perennials and shrubs are causing the root systems of these plants to dry up. But all-in-all, I laugh at their antics and acknowledge that their numbers tend to come and go.
This spring I have come to a new appreciation of this striped member of the squirrel family, which has prompted me to look more deeply at this critter’s value as a contributing member of the neighborhood. It was my swamp maple, Acer rubrum, that allowed me to see the chipmunks with new eyes. It seems this was a mast year for my swamp maple. There were more seeds, aka samaras, on this tree than I have ever seen. They were lovely early in the season when the setting sun would illuminate their red color, and in the past ten days they’ve fallen in such numbers that being on my deck is like being present in a ticker tape parade, or under falling confetti at a party or wedding. After sitting outside during the cocktail hour, I would find the maple samaras tucked in my pockets or stuck on my wine glass. More alarmingly, we began to see these seeds piling up in the cracks of the deck. “We’re going to have to power-wash these out,” I said to my husband.
In addition to the falling maple seeds, there is always other movement on our deck. Hummingbirds visit the annuals in my pots and troughs, and other birds swoop by on their way to the bird feeder. And then there are the chipmunks. They race back and forth across the deck as if it’s the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Since they have the deck to themselves much of the time, they are always surprised when they find people and a dog in what they clearly consider their route if not their racetrack. They come from foraging under my bird feeder with their cheeks stuffed, and are flummoxed to find that the path they normally take from one side of the yard to another is blocked. So chipmunks have always provided us with a bit of evening entertainment. This year, however, I’ve gained a new appreciation of these small critters, because over the past four days they have pretty much cleaned up our deck. It seems that those freshly fallen maple seeds are highly desirable, and these cousins of Chip and Dale have been very busy with samaras removal.
My gratitude for their custodial work aside, let me tell you why we should all appreciate chipmunks and the part they play in the natural world. First of all, they are omnivores: chipmunks not only eat seeds, but grubs, baby mice, bird eggs, worms and small fruits. As they carry excess food to other places for storage, they spread seed and beneficial fungi around, which benefits plants as well as other animals. They are also food themselves; coyotes, fox, owls, hawks and other animals dine on chipmunks. So they are a key part of the cycle of life that goes on in the natural world.
I still occasionally worry that the chipmunk tunnels near my stone walls will cause sections of my garden to collapse…hopefully when I am not standing there, digging or weeding. Yet all in all, I’m appreciative for the role these “rats in tuxedos” play in my gardens and elsewhere. I’m sure that in future days I’ll find pockets of maple seedlings springing up from the places where the chipmunks have planted them. In the meantime, I’m happy that I don’t have to power-wash my deck.