I was in the DNR parking lot last week when an unusual sight caught my eye – a chipmunk was sitting on the pavement, contentedly eating a small bird. There wasn’t much left by the time I discovered the scene, so I don’t know if the chipmunk found the bird dead, or if it captured and killed it. I suspect it found the bird injured and killed it; I have never seen a chipmunk eat dead animals. I remember driving through the woods and seeing a frog come hopping out on the gravel road in front of me. A chipmunk was behind it, in full pursuit. It was a horrific struggle, like watching a really tiny lion taking down an itty bitty green gazelle. Once the frog was done in, I rolled forward and the chipmunk ran off, dragging its prize into the underbrush.
Chipmunks are a common sight here in the Northwoods, but how much do we know about them, or pay attention to them? You may be surprised to learn that there are four different species of chipmunks that occupy all or parts of Wisconsin. The Ohio chipmunk is found in far southern Wisconsin, and the peninsula chipmunk is found on the Door County peninsula (naturally). In the northern half of Wisconsin, we have two species of chipmunk, the gray (or eastern) chipmunk and the least (northern) chipmunk.
There are many different common names given to these creatures. Being a biologist, we typically use the Latin names to discern between two similar animals, so I might call the eastern Tamias and the least Eutamias. However, as I was researching these animals in my reference materials, I found that the Chippewa have names for both distinct species; the eastern is gwen-geesh, and the least is ah-kwin-quis, so I will use those today.
Gwen-geesh is 9.5-11 inches from nose to tail tip, larger than ah-kwin-quis by a fair margin. Ah-kwin-quis is between 7.5 and 8.5 inches long, including the tail. Gwen-geesh tends to live in more deciduous environments, meaning trees that shed their leaves in fall. Ah-kwin-quis prefers more coniferous areas, or areas with a lot of trees that produce cones. Early in the last century, ah-kwin-quis was probably far more common in northern Wisconsin. Gwen-geesh moved in, though, and there were naturalists that predicted that gwen-geesh would completely displace ah-kwin-quis in the north. However, the species live together in the same habitat quite harmoniously, and both seem to be doing well. Both species are typically ground dwellers, but can climb and swim well. Gwen-geesh is a bit less agile and playful than ah-kwin-quis, and probably not as quick. Ah-kwin-quis can run up to 15 miles per hour. Both are similarly colored and striped, but ah-kwin-quis has stripes that go all the way to the base of the tail; the stripes on gwen-geesh end before the tail base.
A chipmunk might live three to four years, re-using the same burrow complex throughout its life. It uses the pouches inside its cheeks to haul dry food only, like nuts and seeds. Moist foods like berries, insects, frogs, snakes or birds are usually eaten on the spot. Chipmunks haul their dry goods into the winter burrow, where they will consume them from mid-November until sometime in April. Chipmunks can enter true hibernation, shutting down their metabolism almost completely; however, this is only done in severe cold or extreme winter conditions.
Gwen-geesh and ah-kwin-quis have occupied the Northwoods for a long time. For many people who come to our state park or state forest campgrounds, this is the first wildlife they will ever see within reach. Love them or hate them, they are a fascinating animal.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.