In my 30 years as director of the Greenburgh Nature Center, our staff focused on presenting environmental and natural history programs that featured local flora and fauna.
By Bill Lawyer
In my 30 years as director of the Greenburgh Nature Center, our staff focused on presenting environmental and natural history programs that featured local flora and fauna. Our educational principle was that you didn’t have to go to exotic, distant locales to experience the fascination of nature. A walk through any local park or preserve could yield views of hundreds of exciting natural events. You just had to be on the lookout.
We were inspired by the Dr. Seuss book, “Horton Hears A Who.” In that story, an elephant discovers an entire village of microscopic “whos” living in a speck of dust.
In Greenburgh, one of the most easily spotted, and fun to watch local “critters” was the eastern chipmunk. We used them to open up people’s consciousness to the web of life in its many forms. One year we even featured Tamias striatus (their scientific name) on our staff and volunteer sweatshirts.
While they don’t depend on humans for any kind of direct support, chipmunks have easily adapted to life in suburban settings.
Here in Rye, although I don’t think anyone’s carried out chipmunk counts the way they do bird or deer counts, I’d guess that the population of chipmunks has been steadily growing. Walking along Rye Beach Avenue from Milton Road to the northeast end of Rye Town Park, there are nearly continuous stone retaining walls teeming with the cute little rodents, particularly the dry stonewalls that provide more crevices and crannies.
The best way to spot them is by watching a bird feeder. While chipmunks aren’t as adept as squirrels, they can climb up a post to a feeder. More commonly, they just collect the fallen seeds.
Chipmunks get their generic name – tamias — from the Greek word for treasurer, or steward. The easiest way to see why they get that name is to watch them in action when there are seeds, nuts, and other foods on the ground. According to biologist Evan Hazard, their diet includes: grass, shoots, fungi, insects, small frogs, worms, and bird eggs.
Instead of eating food as they get it, they are able to stuff it in the expandable pouches inside their cheeks. When their pouches are full, they return to their nest or burrow and stash their “treasure” for future consumption.
For most people, knowing chipmunks have pouches is enough information. But if you want to get deeper into the pouch adaptation, you need to be like Horton and go to the next level.
In the 19th century, the existence and function of cheek pouches became part of the slow but steady development of the theory of evolution. Chipmunks, like earthworms, were easy to observe and study.
Their pouches can expand to be as big as their entire bodies. And they’re not the only mammals with cheek pouches; hamsters, bats, and some monkeys have them, too. Possessing these pouches enables animals to carry much more food before having to return to their homes. Some species of hamsters put their young in the pouches for protection.
Even now, scientists are studying chipmunks to understand such things as climate change and population dispersal, as well as vascular membranes and healing processes. They have also been useful for the study of the immune system, especially in the development of abscesses or tumors.
The next time you spot a chipmunk busily at work, think about the vast world of biological information and theory that these cute critters have brought to our backyard.