Mammal watching has never achieved the popularity of bird watching for at least one reason: most mammals are nocturnal. Not only are most of them small and brown, but you can’t even see them! Mammalogists survey mammals by trapping them, netting them, looking for their tracks and scat, etc. Their survey methods don’t usually include walking around with a pair of binoculars on a nice, sunny day in spring.
But there are exceptions. Some mammals are much more visible than others, primarily because they are diurnal. These include many of the large grazing and browsing hoofed mammals (ungulates), the cute pikas of western mountains, and the squirrels. The Pacific Northwest is abundantly provided with squirrels, encompassing the taxonomic range of the squirrel family: flying squirrels, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, marmots, and chipmunks.
Chipmunks come close to being birdwatchers’ mammals. They are active during the day, with an emphasis on the “active,” they are brightly marked, they are territorial, they vocalize frequently, and they come readily to bird feeders. They vary from very shy to very inquisitive, even tame where they encounter people regularly. They are still basically brown, but their conspicuous stripes make them easily recognizable as chipmunks.
These small squirrels are usually associated with rock piles and fallen logs, where they nest. They forage on the ground and in shrubs, sometimes ascending well up into the trees. Hyperactivity describes them best, as they move jerkily along with tail cocked up into the air. When disturbed, they dart into cover, appearing some distance away for another look at the disturbance.
Most western states have several species of chipmunks; Washington has four. The most common and widespread species in Washington is the Yellow-pine Chipmunk (Tamias amoenus), so named because it is common in the ponderosa (or yellow) pine zone east of the Cascade Mountains crest. Absent from the dense forest of the western lowlands and mid elevations in the mountains, it is again common in the subalpine-alpine zone of the Cascades and Olympics. It is easily seen by hikers in the high country and drivers through almost any of the interior national forests. It is at home in trees, ascending high into pines to forage for the seeds.
The Red-tailed Chipmunk (Tamias ruficaudus) looks about like the Yellow-pine but is slightly larger and longer tailed, and the tail is more intense reddish below. It occurs in the mountains of far northeastern Washington, in Stevens, Pend Oreille, and northern Spokane counties. Its habitat zone is the montane conifer forest and open subalpine zone above that, mostly above the elevation range of the Yellow-pine.
This species would not have been separated from the Yellow-pine but for its copulatory organ. Rodents have a bony structure in the penis called the baculum, and this structure differs among different species of chipmunks. That of the Red-tailed is distinctly longer than that of the Yellow-pine. I have not read of any structural characteristics that differentiated the females!
Finally, the Least Chipmunk (Tamias minimus) is restricted to sagebrush habitats in the southern part of the Columbia Basin. It is a smaller species, generally paler and grayer than the others, with the back stripes brown instead of blackish and very little reddish or brown color anywhere. It overlaps with Yellow-pine where sagebrush, grassland, and ponderosa pine come together. Least Chipmunks occur at higher densities than the other species, and one place to see this is at the Ryegrass rest stop east of Ellensburg on eastbound I-90. It is full of Least Chipmunks most of the year, gathering by the dozens at the feast of sunflower seeds put out by DOT employees.
There is also a pair of chipmunk lookalikes in Washington. The Cascade Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus saturatus) is found throughout the Cascades, in both semiopen conifer forest and alpine meadows. The Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis) occurs in similar habitats in the Blue Mountains and, less commonly, the mountain ranges east of the Okanogan River. Both are larger than chipmunks, with an unstriped golden-orange head. Most ground squirrels eat leaves rather than seeds, but these species are more chipmunk-like in their diet.