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Chipmunks – Cute Critters or Rotten Pests?

a-pair-of-chipmunksI always thought of chipmunks as nothing more than cute little furry forest friends. I would see them running around all the time and since they had never touched my plants or tunneled into my garden I never really gave them too much thought. So I suppose you could say I liked them and had nothing at all against any of them, but that all changed the summer I spent with my maternal grandparents in rural Pennsylvania. That was when I truly learned to detest and despise Alvin, Simon, and Theodore!

My first experience with them as a pest had to do with a container planting of annuals located on the front steps of my Nana’s porch. Every morning I would walk outside only to find this large container in disarray. Two or three of the plants would be uprooted, lying on the ground withering. I’d plant them again, and every night something would dig them up again for me to find the next day. This went on for some time and really drove me bonkers! I had no idea what was happening, was it the neighborhood feral cats? Perhaps a mini-Sasquatch or a hungry bear? Maybe it was the chupacabra, the legendary ‘goat sucker’, mutated into some kind of monster – into some horrible herbivore!

Nope, nothing as cool as space aliens or earth bound monsters either. It was due to chipmunks. I was only able to solve the mystery when I caught one red-pawed, nibbling away at some of the tomato plants my grandparents’ neighbors were growing in their garden. At first glance I thought that I was looking at a young squirrel, but it did not have a bushy tail, and I clearly saw four or five dark stripes down its back. Then, after double-checking some extension service bulletins, I was able to confirm my conclusion – it was not a squirrel, but a chipmunk!

In fact, the extension agent I spoke with, a nice old-timer with an easy smile named Barney Roache, warned me that chipmunks can be around for decades just being darned cute and no trouble at all. And then one day, for no apparent reason, they can “all of sudden go bad and become the absolute worst of garden pests.” He went on to tell me that unlike squirrels, which are blatantly plotting to undo everything you’ve accomplished as a homeowner, chipmunks tend to fly under the radar. Because they are less likely to sneak off into your house, and tend to wreak less havoc on your bird feeders, their destructive behaviors are often blamed on their larger cousins. But according to Barney, “When your yard is suddenly filled with a thousand little potholes, don’t blame the moles. It’s probably a chipmunk.”

Now then, for all you out there who are avid gardeners like I am, you probably don’t need this little story to tell you how frustrating it can be to have your bulbs stolen by fuzzy little rodents with chubby cheeks! Heck, even Donald Duck got totally frustrated trying to keep Chip and Dale out of his back yard vegetable garden!

At this point in my summer vacation, I had had enough! I wanted to do something right away. I began to study chipmunks in more depth. After all, I figured, knowledge is power, right? Knowing a few facts about chipmunks might just help me to prevent them from eating Nana’s bulbs, damaging other young plants, or causing damage to any of the structures.

I found a wildlife publication from Penn State University that provided a concise summary of chipmunk biology, as well as control methods. From this publication I learned that chipmunk burrows can extend 20 to 30 feet. There is no soil piled around the openings, because chipmunks carry it away from the burrows in their cheek pouches and scatter it away from the openings. The burrows are complex, with chambers for nesting, food storage, side pockets and escape tunnels. They may range over about half an acre, but the chipmunks only defend about 50 feet around their main burrow opening.

There usually are two generations of chipmunks born per year, with two to five offspring in early spring and then another two to five little ones again in late summer. So if you seem to have a whole army of them around you, this may be why – they tend to breed like rabbits!

Chipmunks gather and store food, often seeds, throughout the year. If you have seen clumps of sunflowers coming up in flower pots, or small bulbs blooming far away from where you planted them, you can likely thank a chipmunk for that! Actually, this work of sowing seeds is one of their main purposes in natural woodlands, where they help with forest regeneration. Although chipmunks eat mostly seeds, they round out their diets with berries, nuts, insects, and mushrooms on the ground. Chipmunks can also climb trees to gather food up high, and to prey on young birds and bird eggs.

Chipmunks do not hibernate during fall and winter as woodchucks do, but remain rather inactive, subsisting on their stored food. You may see them active on warm, sunny days. In addition to damaging gardens, chipmunks can also cause damage to structures by burrowing under stairways, retention walls, or foundations.

As you can imagine, totally keeping chipmunks out of a yard or garden is going to be pretty much impossible. Chipmunks are almost as acrobatic as that most evil of garden foes, the squirrel – and they are much smaller to boot. You would really have to fence off the entire area in sturdy hardware cloth, sink it down about two feet in the ground, and then build a roof of hardware cloth to keep the chipmunks out from above. This really just isn’t a good option for most of us. So, fencing is out.

As I learned more, I realized that there are several things we can do to coexist with chipmunks on more friendly terms. While these little furry neighbors can be quite exasperating, we should consider why they do what they do. These critters eat nuts, leaves, berries, roots, and seeds. Generally, there is enough food for them in our backyard habitats, and they don’t become pests. Squirrels bury little stashes of food in multiple places, especially in your cultivated soil. But chipmunks commonly store their food in one place in their underground burrows. They stay busy foraging, and they’re delighted to come across a squirrel stash, or your bulbs. As you can imagine, when one of these animals finds your bulb plantings, they think they have just arrived at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

a-chipmunk-eating-a-tomatoIn hot, dry summers, chipmunks are often looking for water, too. And this is when they start to appear around birdbaths and vegetable gardens. I learned about this firsthand that same summer in Pennsylvania. One summer evening our family was picnicking in the shade of a tree. The little devils harvested my nice, ripe tomatoes while I wasn’t looking. They climbed the tree above our table to dine on my tomatoes in peace, and to drink the juice. Then, just to mock me, the little pests dropped a half-eaten red tomato bomb right on my head!

Now, you can deter chipmunks with some natural methods, or you can get rid of them using a variety of traps. Or you can get all medieval on their asses! Over the years I have learned of several ways, some more humane than others, to deal with chipmunk problems. Below you will find some tried and true remedies for your chipmunk blues…

1. Purchase a Live Animal Trap
Scatter sunflower seeds or peanuts around the trap to entice the chipmunks. Then remove the chipmunks from the trap according to your municipality’s animal control ordinances.

2. Place a Bucket Half-Filled with Water Where the Chipmunks are Active
bucket-trap-for-chipmunks• Lean a wooden plank against the side of the bucket.
• Scatter sunflower seeds on the plank, in the water and on the grass around the bucket. The chipmunks will walk on the plank to eat the seeds, fall into the bucket and drown.
• If you only want to get rid of chipmunks and keep squirrels alive, be sure to squirrel-proof your homemade trap or put it in a place that squirrels don’t normally go. Curious squirrels might end up finding the traps, eating the bait, and drown.
• Check with your city or county animal control agency to find out how to dispose of the dead chipmunks. Always wear gloves when handling dead animals, and always wash your hands afterward. Many times, they are infested with fleas, mites and other unpleasant parasites.

3. Put out Mousetraps to Get Rid of Chipmunks
Slather a mix of peanut butter and oatmeal on the trap. While this will kill the chipmunks, the method is quick and spares them pain. Again, dispose of the animals according to the rules of your city or country. Keep checking on the mousetraps throughout the day; squirrels might try to eat the bait and/or carry the traps away.

4. Set out Mothballs
Place mothballs around the foundation of your house, near your plantings and around chipmunk holes. Mothballs won’t eliminate chipmunks, but they will push the critters back to the perimeter of your yard and away from your landscaping.

5. Use Beach Balls and CDs
giant-beach-ball-in-yardChipmunks frighten easily, use this to your advantage. Inflate beach balls and let the wind blow them around your yard. You can also hang old CDs or DVDs to from your trees with string so that the wind blows them around. Use anything that might cause a bit of motion to frighten the little creatures away.

6. Put out Items that Chipmunks Hate to Smell
Try sprinkling blood meal around the roots of your plants. You can also place un-chewed sticks of fragrant gum near chipmunk holes.

7. Use a Commercial Deer Repellent
Chippies don’t like the taste of rotten eggs any more than Bambi does.

8. Let Your Pets Roam Outdoors
Having your dog or cat in the yard will often frighten chipmunks away.

9. Spray Hot Sauce or Pepper Spray on and around Your Plants
Alternatively, you can sprinkle cayenne pepper on your plants. Doing this will keep the chipmunks from chomping on your landscaping. Note that the capsaicin in cayenne is toxic to bees and other beneficial pollinators, so you might use this as a last resort.

10. If You Find a Chipmunk in Your Home…
• Open your doors and windows to the outside to give the chipmunk an opportunity to run out. At the same time, close any doors or entrances to your interior rooms so that the chipmunk has nowhere to go but out.
• Prop a board or other flat item against the sills of your open windows. A board will give the chipmunks something to climb so that they can run out of the window.
• Grab a blanket and use it to herd the chipmunk toward the door. If the chipmunk climbs the blanket, don’t panic. Just gently roll up the blanket, take it outside and dump the chipmunk out.
• Call a professional to get rid of dead chipmunks in the house. If a chipmunk has gotten into your attic or in the walls of your house and has died there, let a professional deal with that problem.

Before you look to get rid of your chipmunk problem with the more violent solutions listed above you might find it wise to keep a few other thoughts in mind. Consider that young children may be bothered by seeing dead chipmunks floating in a bucket of water or stuck in a mousetrap. Be sensitive to their feelings and dispose of the dead animals out of their sight. Also consider that you may just need to call an exterminator or your local animal control department. If none of these methods work, then talk to an expert about eliminating your chipmunk problem.

If chipmunks are just digging up your bulbs, then before you go on a killing spree, try planting the bulbs in a cage made of 1″ x 1″ (2.5 cm x 2.5 cm) wire mesh to keep the critters out.

Finally, be smart! First, you should never place a bucket of water where small children will be able to access it. Small children can fall into the bucket and drown, even in very shallow water. Secondly, be sure you follow the law! Your city/county/state may or may not have a law prohibiting you from killing these animals.

Back during my rural Pennsylvania vacation there were no restrictions, but in the nearby state of New Jersey there were. That state and many others have laws that protect rodents from inhumane capture, treatment, and death. If you are unsure of the local laws, you should check with your state’s ASPCA before attempting the bucket or mousetrap methods. Otherwise, you could be fined or even jailed for doing so. And if you think the chipmunks are a problem, wait until you are stuck in a cold jail cell!

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