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Chipmunks: Furry, cute - and destructive

July 11, 2010

If you think you've noticed more chipmunks in your backyard this year, you're not alone. Wildlife officials say it's a bumper year for the 3-inch rodents, known for the burrows they dig in gardens and their love of sunflower seeds.

Chipmunks, a mammal native to the East, appear to have grown in numbers this spring, making appearances in vegetable and flower gardens across Morris County. While shown in movies and cartoons as furry and cute, they can be more destructive than you might think, said Frank Spiecker, owner of Harbor Wildlife Control in Old Bridge.

Spiecker said he has received 70 requests to trap chipmunks since March. At the same time last year, he estimates he had 15 calls.
"They seem to be getting into homes rather than just getting into yards," Spiecker said. "Animals don't look at homes the same way we do. They look at it as a big hollow log or tree. It's warm and safe from predators."

Pete Nitzche, the county agricultural agent at the Morris County Cooperative Extension Agriculture and Resource Office, said his organization also has received more calls about how to protect home gardens from chipmunks than in years past.

"They're a tough one, but trying to fence them out with very small screening is one means," Nitzche said. "They're not an easy one to control."
Larry Hajna, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said the population of small mammals like chipmunks can fluctuate from year to year, Hajna said.

"They can go in four- or five-year cycles where the population might boom," Hajna said. "The population reaches a threshold and then it will crash or subside. It wouldn't be unexpected when any type of small mammal is experiencing a boom for other predators to move in.'
Hajna said the cause of the increase may be a decrease in the numbers of their predators — foxes, hawks and other carnivores. Weather may also affect the chipmunk population, he said.

"If weather conditions lead to a more abundant food source, they might be more in number," he said.
The chipmunk population could increase depending on landscaping methods, Spiecker said. Mulch provides a good ground cover for the critters to hide in and trees such as oaks are high in nutrients.

"It offers a place for a food source and a place to live," Spiecker said.
Chipmunks are attracted to bird feeders because seeds and nuts make up a large part of their diet. Spiecker recommends homeowners eliminate sunflower seeds from bird feeders because that seed is their favorite food source.

The critters can cause property damage and are difficult to catch because they fit into small places. They gain entry into homes through holes in siding or the foundation and cause property damage. The most expensive job Spiecker had this year was $2,300 because chipmunks got into the homeowner's plastic plumping system.

"Once inside the homes, they can chew wiring like a rat, mouse or squirrel," Spiecker said.
Spiecker uses two methods to capture chipmunks: live traps and rat traps. Live traps lure the chipmunk in with food and then capture them in a cage, while rat traps kill the chipmunk.

To Randolph resident Eileen Nelson, chipmunks are just a nuisance, even though they eat birdseed from her feeders.
"We've always had a lot of chipmunks," Nelson said. "The chipmunks are little and that's why I don't mind them. I figure 'live and let live' — as long as it's not my flower gardens."

Hajna said it's hard to predict what the chipmunk population will be like next year.
"Nature is amazing. It's always adapting," Hajna said. "Sometime we're alert to it as humans, sometimes we're not. The idea is to try to always work in harmony with nature and not get too frustrated."


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