Coexisting with a Chipmunk Named Theodore

Author’s Note:  The original version of this essay first appeared in the Bangor Daily News in August, 2010.  It has since found its way into our new book, The New England Gardener’s Year, published by Cadent Press, Thomaston, ME.  Marjorie and I will be talking about gardening in tune with nature and signing copies of the book at the Jesup Memorial Library, Blue Hill, Maine, on Saturday, March 23, 2013, at 2:00 – 3:30pm.  This event is cosponsored by Sherman’s Books.  A percentage of the book’s purchase price will be donated to the Jesup.  Join us!

Marjorie’s garden is a clearing in the woods.  Cultivated areas, including the vegetable and small fruits garden, perennial beds, and several native woody species that we have planted over the years, are surrounded by spruce trees, firs, white cedars, tamarack, yellow and paperbark birches, red oaks, red maples, and pin cherries. The woods provides protection for the garden’s wildlife visitors, including numerous species of birds, red squirrels, and chipmunks.

In early August, the garden becomes a festival of birds fattening up for migrations south.  The black oil sunflower seed feeders on the porch empty at three times the rate of any other time of year as hordes of bright yellow goldfinches join the ever-present chickadees and nuthatches.  The goldfinches split their time between the feeders and sunflower heads that tower over the vegetable garden.

Meanwhile, the pithy branches of common elderberry bow under the weight of white-throated sparrows feasting on purple berries, tree tops are filled with the fluttering of vireos and warblers searching for caterpillars, and juvenile hermit thrushes, the same youngsters that took every berry from the back-porch red elder in July, peck at the highbush blueberries.

An avid birder since my youth, I enjoy this August bird frenzy and take particular delight in seeing rare visitors to the garden.  In the past week I have seen both black-and-white warblers and northern parula warblers, two species rarely seen during the rest of the year, darting in and out of sight in the canopy of the garden’s oldest pin cherry.

On hot August afternoons, Reilly the Brittany, having learned the futility of giving chase, sits at a corner of the porch watching red squirrels and chipmunks dart back and forth to scavenge seeds dropped by nuthatches in the mysterious way these birds grade a seed’s worth.  Nothing goes to waste.

For me, this is the reason for gardening, knowing that our garden not only provides us with fresh fruits and vegetables for half of the year and the beauty of native plants in every season, but that it also nourishes such a wide diversity of wildlife.

Coexistence with the garden’s wildlife was tested last week, however, when I noticed a red squirrel’s interest in our peach tree’s immature fruits.  As an old Georgia boy with fond memories of fresh peaches and homemade peach ice cream, I have been anxiously waiting for this tree, planted in spring of 2008, to bear fruit.  With only 20 young peaches starting to show color, I took offense at the squirrel’s interest and decided to place a net around the lower half of the tree, securing it all around with stones to keep squirrels from reaching the trunk.  I used the remaining netting to cover the two largest and most productive highbush blueberry bushes.

The next morning there were two sparrows trapped within the net apron surrounding the peach tree.  As I approached, they panicked and became tangled within  the netting.  After freeing them, I immediately took down the entire net and threw it away.

A day later, while harvesting blueberries, I nearly stepped on a chipmunk tangled in netting.  It had rained during the night and the poor animal looked more like a wet rag than anything alive, motionless until I tugged at the net.

I ran to the house for scissors and separated the chipmunk from the net, then worked for several minutes to carefully cut away rings of netting around its neck and front legs.  I wrapped the chipmunk, forever named Theodore, in a towel and placed him in a large clay pot on the porch, adding a handful of blueberries and sunflower nuts.

Theodore dried in the sun, snuggled within folds of the towel, eating blueberries.  Later that afternoon, he jumped out of his pot and joined his comrades in scavenging seeds.  While he recovered, I removed the net from both blueberry plants and threw it away.

Lesson learned, twice.  I will forever regret my avarice, content now to share Marjorie’s garden, including peaches and blueberries, with birds, chipmunks, and all other creatures that live there.

Now, March, 2013, we still coexist with chipmunks.  We’ve lost the grape harvest in the past two years and hold the chipmunks suspect.  We tried putting mesh “socks” over the clusters of grapes as they formed, but they proved no match for the culprits.

A chipmunk lives for three to five years on average, although those kept in captivity have been known to live for eight years.  While the chipmunks in Marjorie’s garden are not captives, they certainly live high on the hog, so it is possible that Theodore is still with us.  I want to think so.  There is this one chipmunk, bolder than the others, who lingers on the porch stuffing its cheeks with seeds even as thudding boots signal my approach from around the corner.  We exchange glances before it scurries to the wood pile.

Theodore snuggles in a clay pot, recovering from his ordeal.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)