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[ June 95 | Male or Female? | Pick me Up ]

June, 1995

We do not have as big a group of chipmunks this year as we have had in the past. Last year we had a huge crop: Stubby, Bob, Spot, Virginia, Phillipe, The Biter, and all their many offspring. I'm always very sorry to see them go.

They were so tame I often had to chase them out of the house because every time I opened the door they would run in. One of them even spent the night in the bedroom with us (not by our choosing, of course. But once a frightened chipmunk gets deep into your house, it can be difficult to get them out. The poor little guy cowered under the dresser all night and gladly ran out the open door in the morning).

This year the first chipmunk to come out of dormancy was a young, dashing specimen that ran across the deck faster than any chipmunk I had ever seen--literally like a streak, a flash, a rocket. When it got to the feeder and paused long enough to pick up some birdseed and sunflower seeds I was able to get a good look at it. Its right ear was not straight and did not match its even left ear. It was slightly slanted inwards, very distinctive. It reminded me of Spock's pointy ears on the original Star Trek. And then it streaked across the deck, down the stairs, and off into the bushes. I named it Sprocket, which is a cross between Spock and a rocket. I thought it was a male, but when it turned up pregnant a few weeks later, I changed my mind.

Male or Female

It's very difficult to tell if a chipmunk is a male or a female, just by looking at them.

Even if you were able to grasp them by the tail and turn them over for inspection, it wouldn't be easy to tell, until they reached adulthood. And since it's just about impossible to grasp them anywhere, at anytime, we don't have to worry about that.

Actually, my group last year was so tame that they would sit in my hand and eat sunflower seeds and let me pet them and do just about anything I wanted to, so one day I decided to see if I could pick them up by the scruff of their neck, like a cat does with a kitten.

Let me add that the process of training them to take food out of the palm of my hand I had been bitten many times, not because they were angry, but because they identify things by tasting them. I have seen them pick up rocks and bite into them, testing them for their viability as food. When they discover that a rock is not edible they simply drop it where they stand and go on to the next thing. Sometimes the next thing was one of my fingers.

They don't usually bite hard, but a couple of them have broken the skin and drawn blood. (One in particular we used to call "The Biter," because he actually enjoyed biting you before he took the food out of your hand. He knew the difference between you and a sunflower seed, but he would always go after your skin if you gave him the chance. We quickly came to recognize him, especially since when he would get within about five inches of your hand he would open his mouth and get prepared to take a bite. They have tiny little teeth, but they are extremely sharp.

The Scruff of the Neck Experiment

Back to picking them up.

I always just put my palm out and they jump into it of their own free will, but I thought it would be fun to see if I could pick one up by surprise. I knew I was risking being bitten, so I started out by wearing gloves. Well, they knew something was up as soon as they saw the gloves. They were just plain cotton gloves, but they knew what my skin looked like, and this wasn't it. They didn't even want to jump into the palm of my glove when I had an almond on it. They love almonds, and as curious as they were, they still were suspicious of the gloves. I finally took the gloves off and they returned immediately, jumping up in my lap and into my hand (I was sitting on the bench on the deck outside my office).

I got Virginia to jump into my left hand and while she was unsuspectingly eating sunflower seeds I carefully and quickly took hold of a bit of fur at the back of her neck and gently lifted her up. She was not happy about it, and tried to turn her head around and get a bite out of my finger. She was not in pain, she just didn't like being picked up like that. I have heard them scream when one bites another one, so I know what they sound like when they are in pain. She was just annoyed with me for dangling her above my hand briefly. I let go of her and she jumped out of my hand and down onto the bench next to me. I brought my right hand down next to her, with sunflower seeds in the palm and she immediately jumped into it again and began eating, so I guess she wasn't going to hold a grudge.

I could not have done this with a completely wild chipmunk. They can run so fast and dash up a tree so quickly, you could never catch one if they didn't want you to. But my chipmunks are used to eating out of my hand and are completely comfortable with being petted, so it wasn't really much of an experiment. And I don't think the mother chipmunks handle the babies in this way very much, except when they are first born.

Copyright © 1996 Toni Will-Harris,