March 07, 2010
I was perusing the Old Farmer's Almanac recently, and read some interesting facts about the month of March. For example, the first game of basketball was played in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 11, 1892, and Massasoit signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims on March 22, 1621.
The most exciting fact to me, though, was that chipmunks are supposed to emerge from their winter hibernation on March 19! Mark the date on your calendar. When I walk through the woods and parks, I always enjoy watching the chipmunks running around the fallen logs. I've learned that if I stand very still, the chipmunks won't hide, but will instead sit and watch me. A couple years ago a chipmunk and I hung out for ten minutes, just sitting and watching each other.
According to Frank Speck's 1935 Journal of American Folklore article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs," the Penobscot of Maine and New Hampshire believed that chipmunks ended their hibernation at the same time as the bear. When you see chipmunks, they said, spring has arrived. I'm assuming this was a cause for celebration, unless you were a bear, because the Penobscot also said the chipmunk's emergence indicated the start of bear hunting season. There's some similarity here with our current belief that the groundhog predicts the start of spring.
It seems like the word chipmunk is derived from an Ojibway word for the same animal, atchitamo, meaning "head first mouth." The Ojibway, a tribe found in the upper mid-West and southern Canada, probably coined this phrase because the chipmunk descends tree trunks head first. The Native Americans in New England would have spoken an Algonquian language similar to the Ojibway, but I haven't been able to find a local Algonquian term for chipmunk. If you know it, please get in touch!