Chipmunks are active and busy this time of year. Fall brings out the new brood of young, born in summer and now adult size, scampering about in search of seeds and berries to store for winter. At one campsite on my last backpack in Yosemite National Park, I saw two chipmunks taking time out for an interesting game of tag.
At least it looked like a playful game to me. Some biologists insist that animals don’t really play, that what looks like fun and games to us is really practice for adult behavior. I suppose they might say the same thing for human play. Whatever the scientists call it, it sure looked like the chipmunks were having what I would call fun.
The two chipmunks chased each other over the rocks and fallen logs under scraggly Jeffrey and lodgepole pines. Back and forth, over and under they went, squeaking at each other, alternating roles of chaser and pursuer. Every few seconds they would stop and rub noses, holding their tails aloft and wagging them from side to side, squeaking rapidly to each other. Then they continued the chase, sometimes changing directions and roles and sometimes not. One time the chaser stopped chasing, distracted by some scent or sight on the ground, and the pursued stopped to wait for it, squeaking encouragement until the chase resumed.
They obviously weren’t fighting, so I wondered if the behavior could be courtship. Chipmunks do quite a bit of chasing around in early spring, the males chasing each other away and following the female until she consents to mate. Perhaps these two were engaging in a game similar to what they would enact in ernest next spring.
If they make it. In addition to making sure they have enough food stored in their secret caches, they have to watch out for predators like coyotes, foxes, and bobcats. Their only defenses are their speed and ability to hide. Several kinds of chipmunks climb trees to escape predators, but the ones I watched didn’t climb. That fact and their coloration made me wonder if they were yellow-pine chipmunks (Tamias amoenus) rather than the lodgepole chipmunk (Tamias speciosus). In my backpack area, the ranges of the two overlap, but my camping spot was in a drier, more open section with lots of scrub and sagebrush typical of the yellow-pine chipmunk’s habitat.
Whatever their species and whatever their motivation, I enjoyed watching them that fall day. There was no winner or loser, just a lot of running and squeaking and tail wagging on a bright crisp day. They made me want to get up and play.