I don’t honestly remember my first encounter with chipmunks, but my mother has told the story so many times I feel as though I remember it clearly.
I was three years old, as was my friend Peter from the cottage next door. We liked our tiny striped friends who ran around stuffing their cheeks with fallen raspberries. We began to feel sorry for them because they lived in dirt holes. One industrious day we decided to clean their home for them—by pouring a pail of soapy water down the tunnel we’d seen them disappear into.
Chipmunks are members of the same family as red squirrels, but they don’t have the same tendency to gnaw through the wiring in your house, or pull the insulation out of your walls. They pretty much mind their own business. They’re beneficial protectors of our forests due to their habit of hiding food under old leaves. This acts as a mulch to help forgotten seeds sprout and grow.
At 16, I spent a summer at my friend Lisa’s cottage. We wore a lot of beads and wrote a Jethro Tull-inspired song called The Giraffe’s Nodule. We taught chipmunks to eat out of our hands using the one recipe they simply cannot resist— peanut butter on toast. It must be the waft of air from the hot bread that carries that most delectable scent past their noses. If you make it, they will come.
The first time I saw a chipmunk in the Yukon, I was on a hike with my husband at Miles Canyon. We sat on a tree to rest. There it was, sitting just over there looking at us. I had no idea they lived this far north. Since then, I’ve seen the odd one here and there, in forests or peeking out of wood piles.
Which brings me to my story: This past summer I was in the garden drinking a morning coffee and a chipmunk ran right past my feet! Tail straight up, that no-nonsense, can’t-you-see-I’m-busy-here performance as it rushed past. I hadn’t seen one for years! I remembered how much I liked them.
So I decided to see if I could tempt chipmunk to stick around. I cleared a spot on an old table stacked with recycled boards and stashed a few peanuts there. It’s a small, awkward place to gain access to which, I was fairly certain, would prevent the larger, conniving squirrels from snatching the treats.
I hid several peanuts there every day and the next morning they were always gone. I really wanted to know who was taking them and (finally!) one evening noticed that some, but not all, the peanuts had disappeared! Was the perp in the process? Were those dastardly squirrels raiding the proverbial cookie jar? I stuck around to see what I might see.
I didn’t wait long. After two or three minutes there was a rustling sound. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blur of movement under the table! Such a quiet sound, but there it was again, followed by a small peep which didn’t sound anything like the brash scolding of a chattery squirrel. Any moment now and the charming striped suit of Chipmunk was bound to appear!
I was taken completely by surprise when up popped a nuthatch! I blinked several times, possibly gasped out loud. How did a bird even find the stash? I recognized the blue-gray feathers, red breast, bold eye stripe and the bossy, brazen attitude. It gave me a steely look from where it sat on the edge of a board, defending the peanuts, then grabbed one in its beak and flew off. A couple minutes later, nuthatch returned, repeating the procedure until every gem had been relocated.
I have seen nuthatch working a peanut pile several times since. I have not seen any evidence that anyone else has managed to pilfer even a single goodie, and it has been more than two months since I saw chipmunk in the garden.
This entirely unanticipated result of my roughly devised experiment has steeled my resolve to have chipmunk return. I’ll have to increase my observations, redesign the stash point layout, probably change the location and definitely rework the menu … will that be smooth or crunchy PB?