Squirrels and Chipmunks

You know it’s a really cold and windy winter’s day when even the squirrels get grumpy. So grumpy, in fact, that this one sat huddled in the fork of the tree, displaying what I believe was universal body language for ‘It’s too cold, (insert expletive)’. I miss the squirrels in New Haven, scampering around, much more carefree than the medical and graduate students slouching past them. Well, except when dogs were being walked on the green, and decided that chasing squirrels with their humans flailing at the end of the leash was the Best Thing Ever.

eastern grey squirrel

It’s cold for eastern grey squirrels too

On the east coast of the United States, eastern grey (or gray, for the Americans amongst you) squirrels reign supreme in the cities. Sciurus carolinensis is native to the eastern and Midwestern U.S.A., as well as to the southern parts of eastern Canada. The genus name, Sciurus, means ‘shadow tail’, implying that they often hide in the shadows provided by their tails. Being highly versatile and adaptable, it’s found new homes in Europe, displacing some of the native squirrels, such as red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), disrupting the ecosystem, and essentially being an invasive nuisance. But of course, back in the U.S.A. where they belong, their habit of burying and storing (caching) nuts and seeds for food can help in the propagation of important trees and plants. Squirrels are smarter than you’d be inclined to think- they have excellent spatial memories, and sometimes pretend to bury food, do so behind bushes, or even find innovative hiding places high up in trees, just to foil spying competitors. Their ability to turn their feet backwards allows them to descend a tree head-first, a unique and useful skill that probably contributes to their adaptability. Squirrels don’t like the heat of the day, preferring to be active in the early and late hours. Their nests, built in the forks of trees, are called dreys. I’ve never managed to eavesdrop on a squirrel conversation, but researchers have found that they communicate in a variety of ways, including facial expressions and a range of different sounds.

Over in Princeton, New Jersey, with its ample greenery and shrubs, chipmunks made an appearance too. Chipmunk chattering calls are actually very pleasant to listen to. I managed to cross paths with a particularly adorable one early in the morning, cheeks stuffed with food. Too far away to tell, but it’s probably an Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) based on its geographic location. Chipmunks like to eat bulbs, buds, greens, fruit, seeds, nuts, berries, mushrooms, insects, worms, and bird eggs. Mostly solitary except during mating season, they usually produce one to two litters of three to five young from February to April and June to August.

eastern chipmunk

Eastern chipmunk with bulging cheek pouches

In Yellowstone, this little one was busy exploring some holes in the ground. Given that it’s in western U.S.A., my guess is that it’s a member of the Neotamias genus. Whilst some like to classify these all under the Tamias genus, others prefer to keep them separate, since there’s a strong degree of divergence (difference) between the mitochondrial DNA (DNA found in mitochondria, a tiny compartment within cells) of the different genera.

chipmunk at yellowstone

Chipmunk at Yellowstone National Park exploring a hole

Back in Singapore, I spotted a little critter munching on a big round fruit at Hort Park. Interestingly, though shaped like a squirrel, it had distinct stripes like chipmunks do. This is the plantain squirrel (Callosciurus notatus), found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Happily enough for it, its genus name means ‘beautiful squirrels’, a title I’m sure it would be happy to accept. It eats mostly leaves and fruits, though it also snacks on insects, bird eggs, and ant larvae. I watched it for a while, before it decided that it needed some privacy and bounded over into the next tree.

plantain squirrel

Plantain squirrel with a long pretty tail, munching on lunch


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chipmunk
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_chipmunk
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_gray_squirrel
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neotamias
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantain_squirrel

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