A Chipmunk’s Winter Sleep (Torpor and Hibernation)

 

A chipmunk among leaves. Photo by Donna L. Long.
A chipmunk among leaves. Photo by Donna L. Long.

When the weather grows chilly, I imagine chipmunks snug in their burrows, peacefully sleeping away the cold winter months. During autumn they spend their time gathering food to last the long, cold winter. I like chipmunks. I like their small size. I like their soft earthy colors. I like their spunk and energy.

Chipmunks in North America

In North America, there are 25 species of chipmunks. Here in the eastern United States, the Eastern Chipmunk is the most common and widespread species. The Eastern Chipmunk ranges from Quebec west to Manitoba south to Georgia. The Eastern species lives throughout Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.

The English word “chipmunk” is a corruption of the name for the animal in Ojibwa, adjidaumo (the “o” at the end has a nasal pronunciation). The name, adjidaumo, means “head first”, the way in which they climb down a tree.

A close-up of a chipmunk's fur and markings. Photo by Donna L. Long.
A close-up of a chipmunk’s fur and markings. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Both males and females have the same coloring of reddish brown fur with one thin black stripe running down their spine. Two black stripes are on each side of their bodies with a white stripe in-between. Two white stripes swipe across their cheeks with a black stripe between them. And another black stripe runs their the eye with two white stripes on either side.

The Eastern Chipmunk in the photos was scurrying around at Fort Washington State Park during autumn. I was on the hawk watching platform watching hawks and other raptors flying high above during the fall migration.

I often look for this small creature. The many stone walls in the Philadelphia area are good places to observe this busy little animal. Apparently, they like having entrances among the stones leading to their underground burrows.

A chipmunk digging in the soil. Photo by Donna L. Long.
A chipmunk digging in the soil. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Chipmunks of the Underground

Eastern Chipmunks are semi-fossorial (underground dwelling) and strictly diurnal (active during daylight). They are most active around noontime. They spend most of their time underground, except for when they forage for food above ground. They are most active on bright, warm, windless days. When not active above ground, chipmunks retire to underground burrows. On hot days they will seek the coolness below the ground’s surface.

Their burrows are about two feet below ground. The one chamber serves as a bedroom and food store. A back tunnel and entrance is plugged to prevent other animals from entering.

A chipmunk chewing something. Photo by Donna L. Long.
A chipmunk chewing something. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Chipmunk Food

Chipmunks can feed up in trees, 65 feet above the ground. They are mostly vegetarian but they eat animal matter such as earthworms, June bugs, worms, grasshoppers, frogs, reptiles, bird eggs, and even small animals when they can catch them.

Autumn is harvest time to observe them. They store nuts and seeds in their burrows to eat all winter long and into the often food scarce spring. They gather beechnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, and fungi.

Chipmunks have incredibly large, stretchy cheek pouches, each of which is the size of its skull. They use their pouches to transport food and soil removed from digging out their burrows.

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Many of us were taught in school that chipmunks were true hibernators, they don’t hibernate. Chipmunks and bears have something in common, they both experience torpor, not hibernation.

Eastern Chipmunks enter their burrows for winter sleeps in late October or early November. They close up their burrows, entrances with soil and vegetation. There is just one chamber in their burrows which services as both bedchamber and food pantry. (bears and hibernation post)

Eastern Chipmunks enter periods of deep sleep, called torpor. During the winter in their burrows, they wake and go back to sleep, repeatedly. A slumbering chipmunk sleeps curled up into a ball, with its fur fluffed up for insulation.

 

A chipmunk among leaves. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Chipmunk among fallen leaves. Photo by Donna L. Long.

When it enters torpor, its heart rate drops from 350 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute. Its body temperature drops from 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degree Celsius) to only 1 or 2 degrees above the air temperature in the burrow.

Temperatures below ground generally stay just above freezing. In the cold but not freezing burrow, they are protected from the dangers of freezing to death.

A close up of a chipmunk's face. Photo by Donna L. Long
A close up of a chipmunk’s face. Photo by Donna L. Long

Chipmunks don’t develop a thick layer of body fat to last the winter. They must wake up periodically to eat and keep their bodies functioning. Each period of wakefulness can last several days. When they wake up, chipmunks urinate and eat some of their stored food.

The last few days here in Philadelphia have been far colder than we are used to at this time of year. Last week’s Nor’easter that brought snow and frigid below zero temperatures. In three days, the temperature high is expected to climb to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few chipmunks are seen running around stretching their legs.

Identify other mammals in my Mammal Photo Gallery

Have a problem with chipmunks? The Humane Society has ideas to help you.

More Posts About Winter

A Winter Sunrise

Winter Walk Among the Pines

A Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Keeping a Winter Nature Journal with Prompts

A Chipmunk’s Winter Sleep (torpor and Hibernation)

How Cold-blooded Frogs Survive the Winter and Emerge in Spring 

Winter Nature Photography Tips

4 comments

  1. Thanks for this great post – your writing is beautifully evocative! I was looking for some more info on how chipmunks spend the winters under my garden. My resident chipmunk has just popped up through the snow in the last week, which feels like a harbinger of spring (I’m up in Massachusetts so its going to be a little while yet). Laura

  2. Enjoyed this article, thank you! We pampered our chipmunks this past summer and fall. They would come sit in our hands to eat. Unfortunately we are moving this winter, so we’re sad that when the chipmunks come out in early spring, they won’t have us around.

    • H, Chris
      Perhaps, the new folks will pick up where yu left off. Or the chipmunks will find other willing humans to give them a helping hand.

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