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Time to frolic for ground squirrels, chipmunks

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By Sylvia Brockner

These lazy, warm summer days are what living in Evergreen is all about. But for some of God’s critters, they are a harbinger of a winter to come. Each morning our golden-mantled ground squirrel saunters out, blinks his eyes and ambles over to the birdfeeder for a hearty breakfast and to enjoy the warm sunshine. He frolics through his old haunts, runways and hideouts, then settles down at the feeder, obviously “in residence” for the summer. His appetite will increase soon as he stuffs himself in preparation for winter.

Many days he is joined by a least chipmunk. This summer this guy is as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever, having stored plenty of our sunflower seeds last fall so that he could feast over the long winter. Now he darts about with the frisky, jerky movements that are so distinctive of the chipmunk tribe.

These two small mammals are often confused, and their names are frequently used interchangeably. Actually, they are quite different in several respects. Ground squirrels are bigger, plumper, slower-moving animals. Although they are perfectly capable of climbing, they do not as a rule climb more than a few feet above the ground.

Chipmunks are leaner-looking, smaller animals that are more or less the link between the ground squirrels and the tree squirrels. They are very quick and nimble and are often seen 20 feet or more up in a tree.

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that both of these little rodents are “candy stripers.” A close look, however, will show that their stripes are also distinctive. The ground squirrel has a light-colored stripe bordered with black on both sides. The chipmunk has a dark median stripe down his back and two additional fine dark stripes on each side. These stripes are separated by wider bands ranging in color from white to chestnut.

The most distinctive feature between these two mammals is that the least chipmunk has stripes on his cheek, and the golden-mantled ground squirrel does not. The stripes on the various species and subspecies of chipmunks may vary from bold to barely visible. The golden-mantled ground squirrel receives its name from the coppery (golden mantel) wash of color over its head and shoulders.

These little mammals are part of everyone’s Colorado summer. They become exceptionally tame with the least encouragement. They learn to beg at every campground and picnic area. They raid the food supplies of backpackers and eat petunias and other flowers in mountain gardens.

They, in fact, become such pests that many mountain dwellers call me each year to ask how they can be controlled. Least chipmunks and golden-mantled ground squirrels are protected in Colorado, and it is illegal to trap or kill them. However, friends who have cats tell me they are not troubled by these little rodents, and while my mostly spaniel dog was young and frisky she kept them chased from our patio.

The smaller rodents are an important link in many food chains. They do at times become abundant, but they are soon brought under control by hawks, owls, coyotes, fox, bobcat, marten and other animals that feed on them.

Ground squirrels and chipmunks may also be discouraged simply by making sure they cannot reach your bird feed. If they are not offered a gourmet spread, they will more than likely go elsewhere. As for me, I do not begrudge them a few petunias and sunflower seeds. They more than repay me with their bright-eyed, happy frolicking about my yard.

Lately, you have also probably noticed an influx of evening grosbeaks at your feeders. It’s hard to say how long they will remain here. This summer we have a bountiful crop of pinecones full of seeds, which is what attracts them to the Rocky Mountain range. Some may winter over here, but the rest will head to the Canadian forests if their pines produce a good crop of cones. In short, birds generally migrate to where their food source is abundant. Sometimes that means they fly to higher elevations, and it can also mean they fly north rather than south.

As we head into fall, you will also notice a number of our aspens turning a rather sickly yellow-green. This is quite normal, and in another month or so they will get the beautiful yellow coloring that brings out the leaf peekers. And if we are lucky enough to have a pleasant, long, dry fall, look for some of them to turn red as well.

Another sign of fall approaching is that our bears become more of a problem. They too need to stock up for hibernating through winter, and there are not that many berry bushes and bulbs to dig up. The all-too-easy solution is to become a garbage bear.

As with deer, it is illegal to feed bears or to leave garbage out. And once they learn about garbage, they never want to give it up. A bear can smell garbage for a mile, so you need to keep it inside. Unfortunately, inexpensive bear-proof garbage containers seldom are. Once the Division of Wildlife gets a complaint on a nuisance bear, officers ear-tag the animal. After three complaints, a decision must be made. DOW can either try to tranquilize the animal and relocate it far from civilization or it must be put down. This really puts the onus on us to be responsible neighbors and remove temptation, especially as we get into fall.

Enjoy summer while it lasts and the approach of fall, a magnificent time to be alive in Colorado.