How Can Chipmunks Add Amusement in Coronavirus Times?

What a year this has been! Coronavirus altered the lives of nearly everyone. Many of us now work from home and spend the day staring at a computer screen and attending zoom meetings.

A delight of working from home is entertainment right outside the window. Sometimes we take our eyes off the screen, glance outside, and grin as we watch chipmunk antics.

No Need To Feed

We don’t really feed our chipmunks. They’re opportunists. When chickadees, nuthatches and other birds drop seeds from hanging feeders the chippies are right there filling their cheeks with sunflower seeds and dashing off to store them in their underground burrows.

Manly people detest these small, beautiful mammals and cite the damage they do to retaining walls and lawns. Our retaining wall is crafted of huge glacial boulders.  Its many nooks and crannies are perfect for chipmunks but are so sturdy chipmunks can’t damage it. They give us cheer in a perplexing year.

Many species of chipmunks live in the United States but the one most common in suburban areas between the Atlantic and the Great Plains is the Eastern Chipmunk.   Almost everyone can identify this animal that only tips the scale at two to three ounces.  Counting its tail, a big one might stretch a foot long.

Where Do Chipmunks Live?

Chipmunks love what biologists call “structure”. A pile of firewood or old lumber, a brush pile, a rarely used shed, or a retention wall is structure that makes a dandy home for chipmunks. They typically create an extensive subterranean home under structures that is an extensive tunnel system with several entrances to the surface.

What’s In a Name?

Chipmunks were named by the Ojibwe Tribe with the words that mean, “one who descends trees headfirst.” Climb they can! Chipmunks scamper up and down trees and bushes and easily reach our bird feeding platform. They prefer sunflower seeds and stuff their cheek pouches until they seem ready to burst. Then they scoot off to store seeds down in their tunnels.  We wonder how big that pile of seeds might be! Chippies also eat wild seeds, acorns, and even an occasional insect.

During the coldest weather chippies stay underground and sleep in a kind of torpor.  They don’t hibernate and probably enjoy snacking on the sunflower seeds they cashed months before. Last winter one tunneled under the snow and emerged under our bird feeder for fresh seeds.

Overall Delight

We love watching our chipmunks chase one another up, down and around the feeder and retaining wall. Suburban chipmunks are fortunate. Snakes and raptors love snacking on them but people keep long, skinny reptiles out of yards and not many hawks venture near homes. Since chipmunks are day shift animals our barred owls don’t get a crack at them because they work the night shift.

So, in exchange for a safe place to eat, a scoop of seeds daily, and a cozy retaining wall to burrow in, our chipmunks give us a humorous and interesting break from working at home chores. CBS recently aired a short on a food editor who, during Coronavirus time has catered to a chipmunk outside her home.  Sweet and tender show!

Connect with past Gazette stories

We settle into fall and sometimes like to just browse past stories.  Here are some links to more recent Gazette features and natures notes.

Explore Iowa’s National Parks. August 2020

Take Advantage of Iowa’s County Gems July 2020

Why RV Life Isn’t for These Senior Tent Campers.  July 2020

Bear Sightings in Iowa Getting More Common. June 2020

Take a Walk on the Wilder Side   April 2020

Derecho Stories:  Get Outside and Walk But Stay Safe  September 2020, Rebirth Amid the Rubble  September 2020

 

Raccoons, Flying Squirrels and Other Nocturnal Visitors

Early one September morning a disturbing sight greeted us. The metal post holding a suet feeder high off the ground was bent. The feeder was gone. After a search we finally found it where our nocturnal thieves had abandoned it after devouring the suet.

Many people are frustrated when daytime squirrels gobble up feeder seed, but other mammals visit feeders unseen after sunset. Not all are as rough on feeders as raccoons and all night visitors are interesting but they can also be frustrating.

raccoon in tree

Raccoons are strong and hungry.

Up in the wee hours sleepless or just to get a snack? Shine a flashlight beam on the feeder. You may spot raccoons, deer, flying squirrels, or even a bear! They all like birdseed and some relish suet.

Raccoons

Raccoons live nearly everywhere, even in big cities. Our son once sent a picture he took of one raiding a dumpster in New York City. Occasionally they are out on cloudy days but mostly they are nocturnal.

Raccoons are common, numerous, powerful, and gregarious. Sometimes a whole family visits a feeder after dark. Excellent climbers, if they can’t shinny up a slippery metal pole to reach seed, they might just bend it over as they did at Winding Pathways. They love suet but also eat corn, sunflower seeds, and many other foods people put out for birds.

Flying Squirrels

One of the most endearing animals to visit feeders are flying squirrels. There are two species but both are nocturnal and are almost never seen during daylight. Flying squirrels often live in big dead hollow trees and are more common than most people realize.

Flying squirrels are misnamed mammals. They can’t fly. They should be called gliding squirrels, for they spread loose skin on their sides and glide from the top of a tree to the ground – or bird feeder. These mammals weigh only about two ounces, about half that of an Eastern chipmunk.  In comparison, a mature gray squirrel is ten times heavier at about 20 ounces.

Flying squirrels are shy and beautiful. Seeing one is a thrill.

Deer

Deer In Garden

Deer In Garden Photo by S. Fehsinger

Like raccoons and flying squirrels, deer love birdseed.  Sometimes they visit during the day but we see them more often after dark. If a feeder is well seed stocked in the evening but is empty come morning deer are likely culprits. Look for their tracks and droppings to confirm the visit.

 

 

 

 

Bear in Suburban yard

Bears make themselves at home anywhere.

Bears

Gads.  Bears at the feeder! Could be. We don’t live in bear country but they are common over much of the United States. Mostly nocturnal, they love birdseed and suet. A 300-pound bear can rip down the most armored feeder and they’re skilled trash can scroungers as well.

 

 

 

Opossum

A ‘possum snuffling for food. Photo J. Jones

Skunks, Possums, and Rats

Skunks, opossums, and Norway Rats all love birdseed. Like flying squirrels and raccoons, they are nocturnal. Skunks and possums are native animals that can be comical, but no one wants rats around. They are dangerous pests capable of spreading disease and gnawing on houses.

REDUCING NOCTURNAL FEEDER VISITORS

There’s an effective way to discourage nocturnal feeding wildlife. It’s a two-step process:

  1. Only put out the amount of seed birds are likely to eat in a day. Empty feeders may attract nocturnal animals but pickings are slim and discouraging.
  2. Better yet bring all feeders inside by sunset. Store them overnight in a metal trash can with a tight-fitting lid to keep mice from being tempted to raid it even if it’s indoors.

Feeding birds is entertaining and educational. We love having colorful activity just outside our window. We’re not thrilled when raccoons tear up the feeders, so when midnight raiders help themselves, we bring feeders in each evening.

What Did the Derecho Do to Wildlife?

We’ll remember August 10, 2020, forever. On that day the wind changed Eastern Iowa and Winding Pathways in a way that will persist for a century. In 40 minutes, straight-line wind gusts up to 140 miles an hour toppled or broke 47 of our 53 trees. Two landed on our roof.

Our property adjoins Faulkes Heritage Woods, a 110-acre preserve of tall old trees, mostly oaks. The derecho felled most of its big trees that tumbled into a jumbled mass of trunks, branches, and leaves.

Wondering how the great change would impact wildlife, we quickly noticed two short term impacts. August and September are usually slow months for bird feeder visitors as birds normally have plenty of wild food. As soon as the wind calmed, all was still. Faithfully, Rich found and filled the feeders.  The next morning, we noticed heavy use by house finches, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers, and chickadees. It was almost like the feeding frenzy that happens as a winter blizzard approaches.

Short Term Impacts

Deer In Woods

Trails are disrupted.

We quickly realized that deer, raccoons, coyotes, woodchucks, squirrels, and even chipmunks experienced a life-changing event. Their travel corridors changed as huge trees blocked deer trails, for example. They had to find new routes through the debris. One afternoon we saw a mother deer and fawn walking on the one remaining “open” trail around our prairie. Then, they crawled under a fallen tree and disappeared into the maze of branches.  The ever clever raccoons have become more than pests as they tear up feeders and raid garbage cans. Also, the storm destroyed this year’s acorn and walnut crop, nuts that many species require. That is why the birds came so readily to the feeders. And still do!

 

Longer-Term Impacts

We are now watching for the long term impacts of the loss of so many trees. Our good friend, Jim Berry, is the former executive director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in New York. We asked him what we might expect following the loss of so many big trees in Faulkes Woods and our property.

“There are winners and losers. I would expect to see fewer wood thrushes, ovenbirds, and scarlet tanagers. They prefer mature forests. The more open woods and sunshine hitting the ground will cause an increase in cardinals, robins, and white-eyed vireos,” he said.

We have been fortunate to enjoy seven woodpecker species over the years. Some will benefit and some will lose from the great woods opening windstorm.  According to Jim red-headed, red-bellied, and downy woodpeckers are likely to increase. So will flickers.

But sapsuckers and hairy and pileated woodpeckers that like the old trees and a closed canopy will probably decline.

The loss of hollow trees that shelter animals and the destroyed nut crop are going to make this a lean winter for squirrels. Deer, blue jays, woodchucks, chipmunks, and wild turkeys will also miss the acorns that normally rain down each fall.

We were saddened to lose so many trees but look forward to watching the forest restore itself. We’re also watching to see changes in wildlife.

How Do You Protect Your Newly Planted Trees?

People in Eastern Iowa planting young trees to replace those shattered by the August 10 Derecho need to remember an important step.  Protect those vulnerable and valuable young trees.

Here is our story. A distressing sight greeted us one September morning a few years ago as we walked to the mailbox to get the newspaper. Overnight a deer had chosen our favorite young maple tree to polish his antlers. He was thorough and had rubbed the bark off all around the two-inch diameter trunk. It was girdled and doomed.

We should have known better. Buck deer start growing their antlers in April and by about Labor Day, they are full size. Antlers are formed by a blood-rich skin called velvet.   By late summer it has dried and bucks rub it off polishing up their antlers for dominance battles with rivals. By neglecting to protect our tree we gave a buck a great rubbing place. And doomed our tree to an early death.

Deer begin rubbing in early fall and sometimes continue until the deer mating season approaches in early November. Deer live in most American cities and regularly roam through suburbs. They are as happy to rub their antlers on an ornamental tree in the front yard as on one back in the woods. It’s never good for the tree.

Deer seem to prefer to rub on saplings with trunks a few inches in diameter. They especially seem to prefer pine and black cherry trees but we have even lost young spruces to their rubs. One thing is predictable. The tree that a family most treasures is the one a buck is likely to destroy.

Damage is preventable. We now run a four-foot-high circle of wire mesh around the tree and wire it to a fence post hammered securely into the ground. Once a tree reaches five or six inches in diameter deer rarely bother them, so the wire is only needed for a few years.

Be sure to water your new, young fall-planted tree. And, protect it with wire mesh.

Why Do Raccoons Tear Up Feeders?

What to Do About Raccoons

One June morning we peered out our dining room window to see bird feeder carnage. The shepherd’s hook that holds up suet and seed feeders were bent and the board it was anchored in shattered. The feeders were gone. One we later found in the little pond we have. We were frustrated and a bit angry.

 

Raccoon at a feeder

Raccoons are skillful climbers. (Jill photo)

Raccoons were the culprits. Several had raided the night before. Young raccoons are loved everywhere for their “cuteness”. We like them too, but damage can’t be ignored, so we took action.

Amazing Animals

Raccoons are amazingly successful animals. They live nearly everywhere in the continental United States and southern Canada. A few years ago, our son sent us a photo he snapped of a raccoon in a dumpster in our nation’s largest city. They thrive in urban, suburban, and rural areas, especially those that have streams, rivers, or lakes nearby and denning places. Those could be hollow trees, road culverts, or even barns, garages, and house attics.

Raccoons were released in Russia and Japan, where they thrive and are expanding their range. Away from North America they are an invasive species causing ecological problems and probably raiding chicken coops and bird feeders in their new countries.

What do Raccoons Eat?

They are successful, in part, because of their eclectic diet. True omnivores, raccoons enjoy dining on carrion, frogs, crayfish, mice, dog and cat food, birdseed, fruit, and a host of other things, even human food scraps tossed in trash cans.

How We Foil the Raccoons

Raccoon

Raccoons forage wherever they find food.

We don’t want to physically harm the raccoons that damaged our bird feeding station so we are doing these things:

  • Only put out as much seed as birds eat during the day, so night prowling raccoons find none to munch on. They move on.
  • Bring silo, suet and hummingbird feeders inside each evening, so they’re not out to temp nocturnal animals.
  • We don’t have a cat or dog but if we did, we would keep their food inside where raccoons cannot get to it.
  • We close the sturdy doors that keep raccoons out of our chicken house at night. We’ve also installed heavy wire mesh over the coop’s windows.
  • We feed food scraps to our chickens and compost what the hens won’t eat in a “tight” compost bin that raccoons can’t enter. Fortunately, chickens devour the foods raccoons love and shun foods that raccoons also don’t eat. If we had to put food scraps in the garbage, we’d keep the can in the garage where wildlife can’t access it.

Capturing the Culprit

Raccoon in a box trap

This raccoon readily entered the box trap to eat the sardines.

The night after the raccoons ruined our feeders, we did one other thing. We have a metal box trap that catches, but doesn’t harm, animals. We set it near the feeder with a sardine for bait. A big raccoon went right in. We let him stay there for a while so he could ponder his captivity. Then we sprayed him with water from the hose and opened the trap. He zoomed out like greased lightning, but he may have enjoyed the stay. It was a hot night and the hose water probably cooled him down. We hope he remembers being confined for a short while and stays away.

 

So far, these actions have worked. Our chickens are healthy and safe. And, no damage to feeders will happen when raccoons prowl.