Birds and Butterflies
Birds & Butterflies
Plants aren't the only thing living in our gardens - they are also the home of birds, butterflies, and a host of other animals and insects. Learn about our friends and foes that share our yards and neighborhoods.
By: Julie Barnes , Horticulture
Now aren’t they cute: Small, 5 to 6 inches long, weighing a mere 3 ounces, distinct tan and black stripes running along their backs, tan and brown lines encircling their eyes. Watching them dart from place to place brings to mind the cartoon antics of Disney’s Chip and Dale or the sounds and adventures of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Until I became a homeowner/gardener, chipmunks were quite charming. Now, the sight of dug up flower bulbs, countless holes, chomped up plants or fruits, has made me rethink this position.
The name chipmunk comes from the “chip, chip” sound this creature makes to communicate danger especially when you are in its territory. This small squirrel family member typically inhabits mature woodlands or woodlot edges where rocks or shrubs offer protection from predators. Similarly, suburban landscapes provide the cover that chipmunks need.
Even though they can climb trees, chipmunks or “ground squirrels” remain on the ground digging and building underground homes. They hide their burrows close to objects, buildings or sheltered areas such as stumps, wood or brush piles, basements, and garages. A burrow entrance is roughly 2 inches in diameter and is not encircled by obvious mounds of dirt because the chipmunk carries it in its cheek pouches and scatters it away from the burrow. The main tunnel extends 20 to 30 feet and can be quite complex incorporating a nesting chamber, food storage spaces, connecting side pockets and separate escape passageways.
The chipmunk’s diet consists of grains, nuts, berries, seeds, mushrooms, insects, and carrion. They also prey on young birds or bird eggs and to a gardener’s dismay flower bulbs, fruits, vegetables and seedlings. In spring, summer, and fall they are most active during the early morning and late afternoon busily gathering food. Extra amounts are stuffed in their cheek pouches similar to massive grocery bags that stretch 3X larger than the chipmunk’s head. Full loads of food are then carried back to the burrow for winter storage.
Chipmunks do not hibernate but become rather inactive during fall and winter subsisting on their stored food. That is why you may see them around when those days are warm and sunny. Mating season occurs twice a year, in early spring and again in early summer. Two to five young may be delivered after a 31-day gestation period, from April to May or from August to October becoming sexually mature within one year. Adults may live up to three years. Population densities of chipmunks are typically 2-4 animals per acre, but can become as high as 10 if sufficient food and cover are available. In large numbers, they can also cause structural damage by burrowing under patios, stairs, retention walls, or home foundations. Chipmunks are not protected by federal law, but are protected by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Pennsylvania law allows landowners to take chipmunks when they are causing damage to property. So, what can you do?
Exclusion- Deter chipmunks from planting beds by installing 1⁄4-inch mesh hardware cloth and covering it with soil. Close openings so chipmunks cannot enter buildings with caulking materials.
Habitat Modification- Avoid connecting wooded areas to a home’s landscape. Know that wood piles or other debris can provide chipmunks with above ground protection. Locate bird feeders 15- 30 feet from buildings to lessen their attraction. Mow grass short around buildings to lessen shelter.
Repellents- Taste repellents labeled for use against squirrels can be used to protect flower bulbs, seeds, and foliage that are not intended for human consumption.
Trapping is an effective means of control around homes and gardens. Common rat snap-traps are used by some. Many prefer to use a live-catch wire mesh trap and transporting them next t several miles away so they don’t return. This is not really recommended. Another alternative for live- trapped chipmunks is to humanely euthanize them.
Ah spring time! A stroll through your yard will certainly alleviate cabin fever. While walking along you suddenly twist your ankle on a tunnel winding through your lawn or you notice that a beloved shrub appears to be unhealthy. As you gently shake away its drooping leaves the entire plant pulls completely out of the ground. Hey! Where are the roots? These dual scenarios are to make you aware of two small mammal culprits that happen to have rhyming names. : Is it a mole or a vole that is to blame? Of course moles seem to more well-known and are often charged for vole damage. However, they are two entirely different pests with the exception that both are associated with tunnels.
Moles are 6-7 inch long gray or brown mammals that are in fact NOT rodents spending almost their entire lives underground. They have a long, naked snout; narrow, slit-like eyes hidden beneath fur, no visible ears and a short virtually hairless tail. The most noticeable feature they have is paddle-like forefeet with large claws bent sideways to excavate tunnels.
These voracious feeders are insectivore’s daily consuming enormous quantities of earthworms, grubs or insects. They do not eat plants but will cause landscape damage by continuously burrowing for food shearing grass or plant roots and pushing soil to the surface in the form of volcano-shaped mounds.
Moles are active both day and night throughout the year mining underneath or near the soil surface to create a complex network of “running” tunnels. As the ground surface freezes in winter or dries out during summer, moles hollow out deeper burrows. On damp spring and fall days they become more active near the earth's surface.
Breeding occurs in February or March where a single litter of three to five offspring is born after a six-week gestation period which then become active at about four weeks of age. Except for mating moles are extremely territorial and will defend their space from other adults so that usually one or two moles are active within a given yard. Their life span is two to three years.
Voles are 5-7 inch long ground-dwelling RODENTS that have stocky bodies on small legs with short tails and commonly are mistaken to be field or deer mice. Tail length distinguishes short tailed voles from mice which have long tails extending nearly half the length t of their bodies. They are black-brown in color with noticeable eyes and ears.
Voles are herbivores or plant-eaters feeding primarily on grasses, flowers, fruits, vegetables, bulbs, and roots which also provide the shelter needed to build their nests. Although there are four species of Pennsylvania voles, the meadow and the woodland (or pine) voles are the most destructive. When food becomes scarce in winter they will gnaw off tree or shrub bark or consume underground roots and tubers.
Voles can safely travel into areas normally not ventured below snow cover crisscrossing across open lawns or grassy areas and forming networks of surface runways easily seen after spring snow melt. They will also travel in mole tunnels damaging roots, bulbs, and tubers within.
Being prolific rodent breeders, voles can quickly colonize areas producing four to five litters a year with two to five young each that can begin breeding after three weeks of birth. A shorter life span of about 16 months will still not deter voles from doing considerable damage if they ever move into your landscape.
Hopefully you can match either mole or vole to the beginning scenarios.