Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 14, 2013

Ed Hungness: Old friend resurfacing is sign of spring

BY ED HUNGNESS
Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — Last fall I had a reoccurring encounter with a chipmunk who took great delight in visiting our garage on sunny afternoons.

The garage door is usually closed to prevent a variety of critters from setting up housekeeping inside. During leaf-raking season, the door is occasionally left open for easy access to the refrigerator and the chilled beverages stored within. Raking is strenuous physical activity and requires frequent hydration.

Once inside the garage, the fur-bearing guest is eventually lured into exploring the live-trap, baited with his all-time favorite entree, sunflower seeds. In the process, Mr. Chipmunk would spring the trap and then patiently await my discovery of his predicament.

I always took pity on the victim, carried the trap outdoors, and released the prisoner. With cheeks stuffed full, he would make a beeline for the entrance to his burrow.

The chipmunk soon learned that this human was not a threat to his well-being and frequently visited the trap multiple times during the same day. With winter approaching, less and less was seen of my friend. One day he was gone, hopefully holed up in his warm burrow, well stocked with acorns, nuts and sunflower seeds.

Over the winter, my little buddy came to mind frequently and I wondered how he was getting along in the underground nest. Curiosity got the best of me, so I did a bit of research concerning the life of a chipmunk.

Chipmunks live in underground burrows, which can be more than 10 feet in length, usually with two entrances. They do hibernate in winter but do not sleep through the entire season like some North Country mammals.

While hibernating, a chipmunk’s body temperature may drop from 94 to 40 degrees and their heart rate slows from a normal 350 beats per minute to perhaps four. They wake up every few days from their nap, raise their body temperature and enjoy a meal of stored food before going back to sleep.

Wildlife studies have shown that chipmunks enjoy an 87 percent winter survival rate. Successful hibernation depends on how much food they managed to put away and the severity of the winter.

This winter, the accumulation of snow over my friend’s burrow location grew to a depth of approximately two feet. The entrance was located alongside the walkway from our cottage to the garage. It was difficult not wonder about his welfare while passing by. What were the living conditions like in the underground dwelling as sub-zero winds blew from the north? Was he warm and dry down there? Would he survive the harsh season?

One sunny March afternoon, while walking to the garage, guess who I saw? Yes, there he was, sitting on top of the snow piled high along the walkway. The chipmunk had dug to the surface and was sitting beside the icy entrance to his home, watching me.

My friend has a distinctive tail which stands out among the neighboring crowd of chipmunks. My guess is that he remembered me because he made no attempt to duck back into the tunnel.

Maybe he was hungry. Perhaps he was enjoying the warmth of the sun reflecting off the snow. Creeping by him, I retrieved a handful of black-oil sunflower seeds from the barrel in the garage. Upon my return he quickly disappeared into the burrow. After sprinkling the seeds around the entrance, I looked over my shoulder while walking away. His head popped out of the hole as if to express his appreciation.

When I returned from my daily trip to the post office, all of the seeds were gone and only tiny footprints remained.

Spring has finally arrived in northern Michigan.

Ed Hungness and his wife became full-time residents of Fife Lake in 2005 after Ed’s retirement. He can be reached at edhungness@yahoo.com or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633.