Jul 31 2010
Few people would deny that chipmunks are cute. They practically define the meaning of the word. But there’s more to these little powerhouses than a winsome personality. That tiny head houses a powerful intellect. Chipmunks learn by observation and example, they solve complex problems, and they know how many seeds make five. A case in point: Just the other day I observed a chipmunk surveying and building a tunnel complex. My office window opens out over the grassy slope where “Jack” makes his home. He and I are old friends. We’ve known each other for years. I can pick him out at a hundred yards just by the tawny color of his coat and the shape of his head and tail. He’s moved house several times over the years I’ve known him, and he recently constructed an extension not far from his current front door. I was witness to the whole process.
It began one morning not long ago, with a curiously choreographed ritual dance. At least that’s what I thought I was seeing at first. Jack stood tall on his hind legs, gazing fixedly out across the slope. Then he sprinted in the direction he’d been looking, stopped short after running some six to eight feet, and returned to his starting place along the selfsame path. He repeated this exercise three or four times in succession, taking a different route each time, before disappearing down a hole I’d never seen before. Were these curious out-and-back forays nothing more than exuberant calisthenics? I didn’t think so. There was a studied, purposeful air in Jack’s every movement, an air that belied any notion that this was merely exercise. So I continued to watch the slope through my binoculars. Soon dirt flew from the hole, and then I saw Jack backing out, kicking a ball of earth from between his widely spaced rear legs, scattering it far and wide. He repeated the process again and again as I watched. At long last, however, he emerged unburdened, washed himself from head to toe, and repeated his early program of short sprints, retracing his original paths exactly, before vanishing underground once again. Shortly afterward, he reappeared to scatter another load of earth on the slope. And another. And another. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the job was over. Jack had a final wash and reentered his home for a well-earned rest.
I didn’t see him again until the next day, and I puzzled over his purposeful choreography for some time. In the end, I came to the conclusion that Jack’s “ritual dance” was nothing less than a preliminary survey for an extension to his tunnel network. Each exploratory sprint established the extent and orientation of a new subsurface tunnel, while the second set of sprints confirmed and corrected the preliminary excavations. Just how the initial bearings and runs guided Jack when he worked in the perpetual dark of the world beneath the slope, I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet that some form of magnetic sense was involved—perhaps the same sort of perception that guides night-flying migratory birds to their destinations. However he managed it, though, it was an impressive demonstration of dead reckoning in action.
What did I tell you? Chipmunks rule. And who said you can’t be both cute and clever, anyway?