Learning about Wild Things: Squirrels and Chipmunks
You have probably noticed us all winter, as we scampered over the snow. We did our best to survive the cold. But now that it is spring and warmer, we are beside ourselves with work, gathering food, building nests and preparing for or tending to the new additions to our families. Explore these animals that can make us laugh with the following suggestions for activities.
There is a logic to the organization of the following information. Please read the “What is Guiding Curiosity” pages to unlock the key to guiding your child’s learning.
Do these wild animals capture your child’s attention? If so, here is your chance to follow up and begin to explore their behavior and other aspects of their lives.
What do squirrels and chipmunks eat?
Where or how do they live?
How long do they live?
When they are born, how big are their litters or how many brothers and sisters do they have?
Why do these animals have long and sharp front teeth?
Watching chipmunks and squirrels is already great fun. Here are some additional ideas for taking a closer look at what they are doing.
We have several chipmunks that have staked out places on our deck where they come to eat rose hips. You can tell by the little piles of plant matter left behind. Scope out these sites, the squirrels or chipmunks are likely to return. Have a pair of binoculars ready so you can get a closer look.
Invite your child keep a look out for other spots to observe these animals. Squirrels and chipmunks can also be found in our backyards, parks, and nearby wooded areas. What are the color patterns on their backs, their stomachs, or tails? What color are their eyes, paws, and teeth? Do they have nails, eyelashes, whiskers, or distinctive markings like stripes? Do these color patterns change over the seasons? Make a drawing or take a picture of an animal in July. Make another drawing or take a picture in February. Are there differences?
If you have a bird feeder, it may be another place where squirrels can be found and observed, helping themselves to the birds’ food.
If your child or his friend or a relative has a hamster or guinea pig, observe its behavior. These are not wild animals but pets. Nevertheless, observing a hamster/guinea pig allows one to consider its nesting behaviors, food preferences, behaviors during the day versus at night, and how it responds to little faces peering into the cage.
Observe squirrels and/and or chipmunks climbing trees, the side of your house, or a fence. How do they manage to go up a horizontal surface?
Observe whether and when chipmunks and/or squirrels sit on their hind legs.
Observe how these animals hold and eat their food.
Observe what happens when these animals chase each other.
Observe carefully and determine whether you have spotted a gray squirrel or a red squirrel. Black and white squirrels also exits, but are rare.
Observe where these animals go when scampering around. If you are lucky you may find their nests or burrows. One difference between squirrels and chipmunks is that chipmunks live in burrows in the ground and squirrels generally build their nests in tress (or sometimes your attic).
Find pictures or sketches of these ground squirrels’ burrows (chipmunks and prairie dogs are ground squirrels). Carefully observe these illustrations looking for different chambers and their possible uses.
Listen carefully trying to identify the sounds these animals make (or alternatively listen to chipmunk chirps on line at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGMeqm4W9Uw, or at http://wildlifeofct.com/eastern%20chipmunk.html). (Squirrel sounds can also be found online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OvLwFxqyL8). Try to capture your own recordings of their sounds. Invite your child to imitate those sounds. There is a series of funny videos of these animals on line that, if your child takes interest in these animals, may not only be hilarious to share, but may also allow for a closer look.
Try to find a chipmunk or squirrel with its cheeks full of food. If one is not making itself observable in your yard or a park, find pictures of these animals with their cheeks full. How do they do it and still run around?
Introducing alternatives or comparisons stimulates deeper thinking.
Squirrels and chipmunks belong to a group of mammals called rodents characterized by large front teeth or incisors. Find photos on-line of these critters or in a field guide. Tape or glue these photos to index cards. Collect information about them or their size, what they eat, nesting behaviors, litter size, toe prints, how they spend the winter months (hibernating or long sleeps interrupted by foraging behaviors), and the nature of their teeth. Compare and contrast red and gray squirrels and chipmunks. How many differences can your child identify?
Next, add photos of flying squirrels. Flying squirrels are not frequently observed as they are nocturnal, but children should find them fascinating and the ways that they are different from their cousins are noteworthy and should incite a whole new set of questions. Videos of flying squirrels can be found on-line and may be the only option for viewing their amazing strategy for accessing trees that are far apart. (See http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/north-america/videos/flying-squirrel-glides-at-night/)
Collect pictures of other rodents, including mice, rats, groundhogs, beavers, guinea pigs, and hamsters. Be selective in your search as several animals that you may think are rodents are not. For example, moles, voles, and rabbits are not rodents. Raccoons, skunks, and possums are also not rodents. Porcupines are rodents while hedgehogs are not. You can make additional cards with images of all of these animals, but make sure that the rodent/not rodent distinction is noted somehow with a mark or other signifier. Add any information about these animals your child finds interesting. These can be sorted and classified according to their size or color. Make a game for guessing which are rodents and which are not. For older children, a variety of classification schemes can be generated on their own or suggested by you.
Additional “data” can be enlightening.
A lot of folks think that these animals are pests or “varmints”. Others think they are adorable. Invite your child to ask around. How do her friends and family members feel about chipmunks and/or squirrels? Do they like them or not? She should keep track of these responses. Ask if she would like to create a pie chart to show those how those in like versus dislike compare. If needed, you can add a third category or “not sure” or “don’t care.”
You probably will not have a chance to hold a ruler up right next to a squirrel or chipmunk, but you can ask your child to estimate their size and weight. Find an animal, take a close look, and then estimate on a ruler how long it is from the top of its head to the tip of its tail. If it is observed standing on its hind legs, estimate how tall it is, or how many inches off the ground the top of its head is.
Because these are wild animals, a direct measurement will be nearly impossible. Practicing estimating, however, is important. Guess a squirrel’s weight and look up averages in a field guide. Guess its age and invite your child to support that guess with some evidence observed about the animal (its teeth look old, its fur is thinning, or it must be young because it looks small).
Estimate how far a flying squirrel can “glide.” It may be that your child is not ready to make a statement such as, “It can go 10 feet” and understand what that means. Provide a length of rope and have him lay out an amount that equals what he thinks this distance would be. Alternatively, pace or walk the distance out. Then measure with a tape measure, either the length of the rope or the distance paced from start to end. Compare this estimate with information about these leaps (estimates are that flying squirrels glide between 30 and 40 feet, but possibly as far as close to 300 feet). Your child should be astounded by this information!
Next, make estimates of how far a flying squirrel can glide by considering how high it is in a tree when it takes off. The glide distance will be a function of how high the animal is when it launches itself. Make a paper airplane and send it off from different heights with approximately the same force. Observe the differences in glide paths.
Have a question? Manipulate or change something to discover an answer.
Suggest that your child collects some nuts, plant parts such as rose hips or flowers, and fruits. This is a gray squirrel’s diet. Now, consider how to store these items for winter. Where are the best hiding places? Look around. Are there convenient holes under roots or logs where a cache can be hidden? Would burying those items make more sense? How could you find them again weeks or months later if you were the squirrel?
Place a hand full of bird seed, acorns or other nuts (peanuts, almonds), pine cones, or slices of fresh or dried fruit (raisins or cranberries) in a spot where you know a squirrel or chipmunk will find it. Keep track of what was put out. After the animal has visited your buffet, assess what is missing or has been eaten. What food item did the animal prefer? How much of it was eaten or taken in that visit?
A variation on this food experiment is to ask your child to “hide” these items under roots or other spots in the yard. Keep track of where the food items were hidden by making a map or keeping notes. Wait a specified period and then revisit those hiding spots. Did the animals find those foods? How do you know the squirrel or chipmunk was responsible if something was eaten or removed? What other animals in the area might have taken advantage of your experiment?
Visit a library and find books about chipmunks and squirrels. There are a number of stories, but nonfiction books on these and other animals will extend interest and understanding.
Make squirrel or chipmunk costumes. Attach ears to a headband. Make a tail out of a paper bag and brown yarn or construction paper that can be cut to represent the fur. Explore ways to represent cheeks stuffed full of peanuts. This could be simply taking a breath of air and puffing cheeks out. It may be worth having a discussion about not imitating these animals and overfilling cheeks with nuts or other items that could present a choking hazard. Make a version of the long front teeth. Popsicle sticks could be stapled or glued to a strap.
Find information on rodents’ incisors or their long front teeth. These teeth grow continuously and must be maintained.
Look for tracks in the snow. Which belong to squirrels and chipmunks and how can you tell?
Explore who could be a squirrels enemy or predator.