Ode to the chipmunk 

Rodents in a flurry of activity as they prepare for winter

click to enlarge PHOTO FROM SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - Cheery Chipmunks Area chipmunks are busy bulking up for winter hibernation.
  • Photo from shutterstock.com
  • Cheery Chipmunks Area chipmunks are busy bulking up for winter hibernation.

While many of my hours are spent looking for bears and larger animals on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, my wandering eye frequently leads me elsewhere. It is a challenge to disregard the other life going on and I suppose I sometimes find myself over stimulated by nature. This, incidentally, is my very favourite state. While out on the mountains, robins, jays and nutcrackers sing and flit about, clouds surf the sky, the sun rises and sets, and wind whips through the deciduous trees. This performance ensues, while on the ground a whole other posse of critters work and play all at the same time.

This other posse continually caught my eye, due to its sheer abundance and frenetic activity. To give a deserved hurrah to a rodent generally ignored in Whistler, I am personally deeming the year 2014 to be "the year of the chipmunk." As with most of my nonscientific declarations, the dedication is not completely accurate. More precisely, the year 2014 should be deemed the year of the yellow pine chipmunk, Douglas squirrel, southern red-backed vole, ermine (short-tailed weasel), American pika and Snowshoe hare along with many other small rodents and mammals but that would just not be as catchy.

Chipmunks held meetings on the sides of the road, eating a buffet of grass seeds while discussing, well, who knows. Squirrels chatted and chased each other about and voles poked in and out of ditches in record numbers. New levels of driving skill were required to avoid suicidal squirrels that took to darting across the road in that careless, let's-play-chicken kind of way. Even pikas and marmots rose up out of rocks to be counted.

Being an avid naturalist and not a small mammal biologist, I cannot explain why there were so many small mammals and rodents about this year but I will try to offer some, again, unscientific explanations. One, the late snow last year created some very favourable conditions for these little guys. Both yellow pine Chipmunks and Douglas squirrels fill up on seeds and cones in the fall and bring in unstripped cones to their nests to eat over winter. When the winter is harsh, they survive only on whatever they have stored up until spring comes. Last year they could eat freely outside into January before life got too harsh to forage.

Chipmunks fill up on berries and seeds as they get ready for winter and last year there was a bumper berry crop in Whistler that lasted three weeks later than this year. The chipmunks probably stored a little more food and ate better last winter.

Both chipmunks and squirrels mate in the early spring as soon as hibernation is done. Squirrels can have one to eight babies and chipmunks between three and six. Like other species, a fat healthy mom can mean more babies. Hence, all the extra food meant more squirrels and chipmunks.

As well as an abundant food supply, there was also a distinct absence of a pair of coyotes who called Whistler and Blackcomb home for years. I don't know where they went, we were not friends, merely acquaintances and they did not keep me apprised of their intentions. What I do know, is that with two fewer predators in the area, the small mammals could freely enjoy every seed and cone they could find with one less care in the world.

One group that was most impressed by the number of rodents and small mammals this year was the raptors. Hawks were seen circling over the rocky slopes on Whistler and Blackcomb just waiting for dinner to appear and pikas could be heard shrieking in horror below.

If abundance of food supply actually does increase species numbers in the short term, then maybe I'll call next year the year of the hawk.

The Whistler Naturalists are a non-profit volunteer group dedicated to increasing local knowledge of the natural world in the Whistler area. For more information or to get involved, please visit WhistlerNaturalists.ca.


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