Say hello to Pancake the Chipmunk!
Pancake is a wild Eastern Chipmunk from New Jersey who lives in a burrow in my backyard. She loves climbing, getting brushed gently, and eating peanuts, cashews, and almonds.
My friendship with Pancake began in the summer of 2020 while sheltering in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Americans were instructed to stay at home beginning in March of 2020 for a quarantine that would later unfold to last many months longer than expected, even spilling over into 2021.
How did I end up spending that extra time? Befriending a wild chipmunk, of course.
It didn’t take long before my new friend, Pancake, was jumping up onto me and readily accepting gentle pats on the back from a soft-bristled toothbrush. I even tried teaching her, “Sit.”
You’re probably wondering how this happened.
With all the newfound time in my schedule from the imposed quarantine, I thought I’d begin a new backyard project: Rocky’s Ark.
Being locked away at home, I decided to start building “Rocky’s Ark.” The Ark refers to an arc-shaped area of stonework in my backyard that I designated as a new feeding area for animals, inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark.
In case COVID brought about the end of civilization as we know it, at least wild animals could come together at the backyard Ark to coexist, intermingle, and feast on an abundance of seeds. For a new tomorrow.
As you may have seen in the month-by-month breakdown of my 2020 Year In Review, after April, the Ark eventually was visited by creatures from so many different walks of life. To name a few, we had: woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, cowbirds, grackles, European starlings, titmice, squirrels, and chipmunks! At times, together all at once!
Creating “My Ark” was a special part of the pandemic for me. It allowed me to remain connected with nature during a time when staying home was paramount. So soon after leaving Spain, I was still missing the wild birds I had connected with while traveling so this worked out as a nice solution to continue my connection with nature.
In case you were wondering, the name “Pancake” was chosen randomly. I just thought it sounded cute, like her. I wanted a name that captures how soft and sweet she is.
Pancake Was Bullied & Afraid
Pancake was a fearful chipmunk who got bullied by the other chipmunks in the backyard.
Eastern chipmunks are highly territorial animals. They defend their space with loud vocalizations. If one sees another chipmunk nearby, they’ll have a brief staring contest with one another before one of the two chipmunks chases the other away with a vengeance.
(If you see two chipmunks running in your yard, they’re not playing tag. One is trying to intimidate and chase the other one far, far away.)
In Pancake’s case, she was always the chipmunk getting chased away.
The photograph above is actually the first photo I ever took of Pancake.
You can almost see the concern in her eyes. It’s like she was thinking, “Is this man going to hurt me? Is it safe to be this close? How am I going to get that delicious-looking sunflower seed from him before I get chased?”
Becoming Pancake’s Best Friend
I think she got the idea that I wasn’t going to hurt her after a few days of getting to fill her oversized cheeks with all sorts of healthy treats.
Eventually, she learned to keep a safe distance from the Ark since the more assertive chipmunks would typically be collecting the seeds over there. Waiting to attack. Instead, she’d hide and wait over by the corner of the deck right where the gutter meets the ground.
Once I noticed Pancake would stand there to watch the Ark from a safe distance, I started trying to approach her little by little so she could take the food directly from me without having to deal with the competition.
Pancake was naturally fearful when we first met so it took a lot of patience and time before she ever started to come around. Wild chipmunks are afraid of humans. Pancake was especially afraid in the beginning. I needed to show her she could trust me.
Typically, this meant giving her an abundance of sunflower seeds, cashews, or almonds since those were her favorites. When she was really good, she even got precious macadamia nuts.
Pancake Loves Peanuts, Cashews, and Almonds
She also really likes hazelnuts!
Rather uncharacteristically of her kind, she was repulsed by peanuts at first.
I don’t think she had ever seen a peanut before. Once she learned how to open them and saw what was inside of them, she seemed to take a MUCH greater liking to the legumes.
You Can Pet Pancake
Early on, I wondered if Pancake would allow me to pet her. I didn’t want to touch her directly so I opened a new, soft-bristled toothbrush for her. At least if she got spooked, she’d bite the toothbrush and not my finger.
From the first try, she made it clear she loved having her back brushed.
She didn’t run or resist getting brushed at all. She now enjoys soft pats on the back and gentle brushes while munching on cashews.
Her Crazy, Zany Personality
Pancake’s personality is what really makes her stand out to me.
This video was taken the first time I introduced her to my sister.
The Queen eventually got her very own Instagram page (which you should totally go follow!)
People frequently ask me how I can recognize Pancake from the other chipmunks.
Though it is easy for me to spot her, it is not a simple question for me to answer. A lot of the recognition is based on her behavior. She’s so gentle and reserved compared to the other chipmunks who visit.
She does also have certain physical characteristics that I try to look for like this one marking on the right side of her face and specific traits with her tail’s fluffiness and length.
I’m not sure they’re the most reliable indictors though.
Somehow, I can just tell when it’s her.
She’s not grubby like the others. She contemplates which ones are the perfect seeds or nuts to choose and selects them sparingly.
Torpor / Hibernation
Until I began to do my chipmunk research, I did not realize that these little guys enter into a type of hibernation called “torpor” once the weather begins to cool in late autumn.
Rather than being true hibernators like groundhogs, chipmunks spend most of the winter in a hibernation-like state of slumber. They go to bed and wake up periodically every few weeks to eat from the reserve of foods they have hoarded in their underground burrow.
Around October 14th of 2020, Pancake began her rest. It was the last day I saw her. All winter long, I hoped she’d pop by to visit… but she never did.
If it meant her staying underground where she is safer… so be it.
I sort of put it into my own head that she’d emerge promptly at the start of spring in mid-March (based on what I read about them exiting their burrows), but now, here we are… almost at the end of April 2021… and I still have not seen Pancake.
I’ve seen other chipmunks on Instagram for weeks. I’ve even seen a few others in my yard this past week. Not Pancake though.
(Special thanks to my friend Lyndsey for this super cute chipmunk calendar!)
I never imagined I would have to wait until May to *hopefully* see Pancake again.
The countdown for Pancake’s return continues…
I did some research and I was heartbroken to read that chipmunks typically only live 2 years on average. I don’t know if Pancake is really sleeping in this year or what might have happened to her, but I sure do hope she makes an appearance again this year.
I really want to see her again.
Until then, I’ll be keeping an eye out for her.
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