While in Joshua Tree, California, this Spring, we met a delightful animal whose scientific name, Ammospermophilus leucurus, literally translates as “white-tailed sand and seed lover”. Commonly known as the White-Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel, this creature is native to the southwestern U.S.A. and Baja California, Mexico. Although they are technically squirrels, because of their small size we couldn’t help but to think of them as “chipmunks” and to call them “chippees.”
The first one who started showing up by the door when we went outside had a shorter-than-usual tail from a past injury and a plump-ish matronly shape, so we named her “Mrs. Stubbs.”
We started tossing out sunflower seeds for her. She shelled them and stuffed her cheeks with them:
Before long, she was eating out of our hands and off of our laps:
Before much longer, other chippees were showing up and a daily ritual was born. Every morning when I came outside with my own breakfast (granola and chai tea), I would bring a few handfuls of sunflower seeds and call for them by loudly vocalizing, “CHP CHP CHP CHP CHP CHP!” They quickly came to associate this sound with food and would come running up to the house from the surrounding desert, sprinting in short bursts from rock to shrub to log until they were close, and then enthusiastically helping themselves to the seeds.
Wanting to know more about our new friends, I found a wonderful book at the library called, “Our Desert Neighbors” (Stanford University Press, 1950). It was written by Edmund C. Jaeger, a biologist known as the “dean of the California deserts” for his decades-long career of dedication to studying and writing about the flora, fauna and ecology of the deserts of southern California and northern Mexico. Jaeger used a style that has since — alas! — gone out of fashion, so it is well-worth it to quote the first paragraph from his chapter on the White-Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel:
The antelope “chipmunk,” that vivacious animal midget that literally bounces over the ground, carrying his small, flattened, white-backed tail jauntily curled over his back, is the gayest little mammal of the desert. Sprightly, restless, and seemingly always possessed of the vigorous spontaneity of youth, he is among the favorites of all who know him. Especially are you fortunate if you have this chipper little rodent take up living quarters in the neighborhood of your desert home, for then you may watch him in all his sportive moods and know his engaging family life at firsthand.
We did indeed consider ourselves “fortunate” that these charming animals included us in their daily lives and we did learn a lot about them by watching them at such close-quarters. For example, we saw that they displayed much competitiveness when feeding in groups. The jockeying for position was constant, and accompanied by much chattering. After watching them for some time, we were able to identify a top tier of the pecking order, which included Mrs. Stubbs.
It was endlessly entertaining to watch their jostling interactions. While working as quickly as possible to stuff their cheeks with as many seeds as would fit, they constantly tracked the proximity of their fellows and sent clear vocal and physical messages to hold the integrity of their own space:
But when danger was near, they were all-for-one and one-for-all. An approaching threat was announced by a loud, almost bird-like chittering sound that shifted pitch every 5 seconds or so, and went on for 10-20 seconds altogether. Usually it was followed by more alarms from other directions. If the chippees were feeding in a group, they would immediately scatter, some taking cover under shrubs or in their burrows, others ascending to higher points to keep an eye out.
Hearing the alarms, I would often step outside to see if I could see what was going on. As each alarm went off, I was often able to triangulate the source of trouble and see who it was. Commonly it was a roadrunner, which are carnivorous and will eat small chippees if they can catch them, though lizards are a much more common part of their diet. One morning it was a group of four coyotes ambling casually across the property, seemingly uncaring about the shrill sounds around them.
The chippees didn’t stay away from their foraging for long, though, and as soon as the danger was past, they were right back out again, stuffing their cheeks.
One day in May, we saw three new chippees appear and they were only half as big as the others. Babies! Well, not exactly “babies” since they were out of the burrow, but adolescents. Their back feet seemed full-sized, giving them a somewhat gangly “teenager” appearance, even cuter than the adults. We were in love! Jaeger was as charmed as we were, writing:
The young, usually numbering seven or eight or even as many as fourteen, are born in late February to May. They are soon miniature duplicates of their parents, and when old enough to pop their heads above ground and leave the underground nursery they may be seen playing about the home base. I have watched the little pranksters by the hour. Among a group of young I observed one spring in the mud hills near Mecca by the Salton Sea, a curious kind of leapfrog was one of the favorite sports. At all times they were as lively as family of baby bears, and like those playful creatures were often cuffing one another. Perhaps a moment later they were playing tag with all the gay agility of baby kittens. who can guess the amount of secret frolic that went on among them when I was not near!
We started offering peanuts in-the-shell as well as sunflower seeds. Interestingly, they ignored the peanuts until we opened a few for them first to show them what was inside. Mrs. Stubbs was the first to catch on, then a couple of the males, who came to covet them above the sunflower seeds. Two or three others learned about the peanuts from watching these but the others — the majority — never paid any attention, and would leave a peanut to sit while eating all the sunflower seeds around it. Generally speaking, those chippees who did like the peanuts would take off with them, away from the others, to eat or bury someplace else. This video is an edited montage of several to many peanut-grabs:
One one of our last mornings in Joshua Tree, I managed to lure Mrs. Stubbs and one of the young males up onto my shoulder by putting a small pile of sunflower seeds there and then sitting still for about fifteen minutes. Here you can see the reward I got for my patience.
We left for Portland soon afterwards and not a day has gone by since when I haven’t thought about the chippees, especially Mrs. Stubbs. They were wild animals, and never our “pets,” so the relationship was different than with a cat or certainly a dog; all parties enjoyed mutual benefit but with no co-dependency. And I can’t put it any better than Jaeger when he characterized this creature as “a decent, friendly neighbor of the finest sort.” Indeed!