By David J. Hawke – As some of you may be aware, the fourteenth of February is a special day, a day that often marks the start of a fresh new season.
By now we are so fed up with winter that we actually consider, in flashes of cold-induced numbness, becoming a citizen of a warmer country. But then it happens, that mid-month event that brings hope for us all, a harbinger of warmer times ahead!
I speak of course of the emergence of the chipmunks from their winter hibernation.
There may well be snow on the ground, sometimes knee-deep in places, yet when the urge to emerge hits a hungry chipmunk, it's topside they go. Sleeping more or less soundly since last October, they have a bad case of cabin fever and really need to get out.
Not that they didn't have activities to do over the winter. From time to time they woke up, wandered down the hallway to the storage room, gnawed on a seed or two, stumbled over to the bathroom area ("oh, that feels good… must be two weeks since I last went"), and then tip toe back to the sleeping area for another extended nap.
As much fun as that sounds to be, there comes a time when a change in the routine is required. There may be a quick thaw or an 'unseasonable' rainfall that brings a bit of dampness to the entrance of the tunnel and chippies start to stir in their sleep.
For some reason, I keep track of the dates when the first observation of a seasonal critter is noted… first spring song of a chickadee, first horned lark, first song sparrow, first chipmunk. These are my assurance that wintertime is coming to an end and these "spring things" herald the rise in daily temperatures.
While February can be bitterly cold, it can also be gloriously warm. On one morning it may be minus 32C yet a couple days later the thermometer registers blistering plus 10C. The angle of sunlight in February is also such that a sunny day produces a deep blue sky that reflects off sparkling white snow, with tree shadows appearing as blue-gray patterns that stretch across valley and field. So yeah, kind of pretty too, even though it is still winter.
On such days we go snowshoeing ('cause, you know, it is Valentine season), and on such days we may be lucky enough to see a sleepy-eyed chipmunk sitting atop a stump or on a low branch. Soaking up sunlight is an activity not just for cats in a window. Not only is the body warmed, but the vitamins found in sunlight, coupled with a bit of fresh air, invigorates the body and lifts the spirit of all animals alike.
Actually, the male chipmunks get quite inspired by this spring-like weather, and will try get a party started if any female-type chippies are nearby! Cold snow-showers don't have much of a dampening effect on amorous chipmunks.
The chipmunks of the Muskoka area tend to come out a week or so ahead of their chippy neighbours to the south in Simcoe County. Maybe the rocks warm up quicker than the deep southern soils and the hibernating wee beasts awaken sooner; or maybe the rocks are colder and the chipmunks are lighter sleepers? Haven't figured that one out yet.
There are other creatures that hibernate, bears and butterflies being a couple examples. While I don't have much personal experience with bears, I have often noted Mourning Cloak and Tortoise Shell butterflies flitting about woodlots that still contained noticeable-sized patches of unmelted snow. But that comes in March, a time some days and days distant from now; we'll talk about them later.
Whatever the factors, February 14 seems to be the average date of the natural emergence of the first rodent. I'm not really ignoring the over-hyped version of that February-the-second spring awakening, just refocusing on reality. Actually, on second thought, yes, I am challenging the Groundhog Day shenanigans.
Now, before you deluge me with indignant e-mails, letters, telephone calls, and surround the house with placard-waving mobs of angry Groundhog Day supporters, let me say this about that:
Groundhogs are in the squirrel family, the same as chipmunks. They both cop-out of winter by hibernating, unlike their other wintertime active cousins the red, flying and grey squirrels. For those of you who support the artificially induced wakening of Willy and Phil, that's nice; as for me, I'm sticking with Alvin and company.
When the first chipmunk appears, it's golden fur highlighted by the warm sunlight, standing out against the white background of winter, what better time than now for a great horned owl to grab a quick snack. Ahh, reality... guess he should have hit the snooze button.