The Clucking Munk

photo of an Eastern Chipmunk by Lang ElliottOh my, what praytell shall I post this evening? It’s been a long, busy day, so whatever I do can’t take too much effort. Let me see what I have sitting here on my desktop (computer desktop, that is). Hmmmm … how about a recording of … a couple of Eastern Chipmunks giving “aerial predator alarm calls” in response to a Broad-winged Hawk perched in a nearby tree, the hawk giving its penetrating alarm whistle because it could see me sitting there with my headphones on, a few hundred feet away? (FYI, I had set my microphone close to the hawk’s nest just to get his alarm screams; the two chipmunks that started calling off to one side were a complete surprise.)

Will this be exciting enough for everyone, or have I pampered you so much that it won’t impress at all? Well, whatever, here it is:

Eastern Chipmunks giving aerial predator alarm calls in the presence of a Broad-winged Hawk that is also calling. 9am, 27 June 1995, in hardwood forest near Ithaca, New York. Recording © Lang Elliott.

This is quite an instructive recording. The “clucking” of the Eastern Chipmunk is, in fact, given in the presence of aerial predators such as hawks or day-hunting owls. Guess who discovered this? Yep, ME, yours truly. Way back in the mid-1970s, for my masters degree in Animal Behavior and Ecology at the University of Maryland, I studied the social behavior of a population of chipmunks in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. I made lots of interesting discoveries and described many aspects of their social life that nobody else had witnessed, but figuring out that the hollow cluck-calls are given in the presence of aerial predators was perhaps my most important contribution to their natural history.

At first I had no idea what it was about. I’d hear one chipmunk start clucking, then another, then another, as a “clucking bout” seemed to spread through the forest along a path. It wasn’t until autumn and spring, when the leaves were no longer on the trees, that I was able to put it all together. Seventeen times altogether I was lucky enough to see hawks fly by—mostly Broad-winged Hawks, but also Cooper’s Hawks and even a Goshawk—and in every instance clucking gradually erupted along the flight path of the hawk. When chipmunks gave these calls they became alert, and often sat still on a log, rock, or stump. As you might suspect, an alert chipmunk does not make good prey. If a hawk were to swoop at one, the perched chippie would see it coming and dash to safety.

photo of chipmunk with pouches full by Lang Elliott

Why do chipmunks give these calls when they see an aerial predator? Well, I’m not totally sure, but it might have something to do with altruism and genetics, with the “relatedness” of neighbors in the forest habitat. Biologists theorize that if neighbors are related, then it’s a good idea to alert your neighbor of danger, as long as it’s not too dangerous to do so. From an evolutionary perspective, this means that the calling chipmunk is helping pass on its genes, by helping neighbors that share genes . . . or something like that. In addition to the relatedness hypothesis, it is also possible that the sound simply tells the hawk that it has been spotted, that it won’t fare well here, and that it might as well move on down the road.

If you’re interested, you can download a hi-resolution PDF of my original study, provided online by Smithsonian Institution:

Elliott, Lang. 1978. Social Behavior and Foraging Ecology of the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) in the Adirondack Mountains, Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology, Number 265, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Comments

  1. Zack Frieben says:

    I looked up info. about the Gray-Collared Chipmunk. It is endemic to New Mexico and Arizona. I’ve also learned months ago, that apparently, there’s a second species of chipmunk in Michigan, but not around where I live. Least Chipmunk, which in Michigan is found only in the UP.

  2. Hi Lang:

    I forgot to mention the species most common in my area is the Gray-collared Chipmunk (T. cineriecollis). Heard one do it again today with the same RT nearby. I haven’t been able to get a good recording of these calls due to wind and my own ineptitude. But I hope to. The call is pretty darn close to that of the Eastern.

    Zach

  3. Great stuff here, Lang. I’ve been getting into bird recording lately and your site is a nice reference. I’ve been birding and studying raptors for years, and am aware of alarm calls, but I’ve just recently been making deeper connections to what’s happening out there.

    This post here helped solve a little mystery for me that I now feel silly for not having picked up on sooner. I have been hearing what I thought were Mountain pygmy owls on my regular birding/tracking hikes and even from the backyard (central Arizona). A couple were owls, but some of the calls just had a mammal “jizz” about them. And I never observed any mobbing calls/behavior with any of these. Huh? So, today I was investigating such a call, that was also accompanied by mountain chickadees giving a mild alarm call. As I approached, the owl-like call got faster and a little more urgent. Immediately a Red-tailed hawk took flight from nearby. Then silence for a bit. It all crystallized right them. Chipmunk “cluck” that at a slight distance sounded like pygmy owl ‘poops’. Anyway, glad you had these recordings so I could confirm my suspicions.

    • Zach:

      Glad to hear my recording helped solve your “mystery.” Yours would not be the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striates), but it wouldn’t surprise me if yours had a similar hollow-sounding alarm note. Do you know what chipmunk species you have in your area (there are quite a number to choose from in the genus Tamias)?

      Lang

  4. Zack Frieben says:

    I hear a Red-Eyed Vireo singing as well. Also thought I heard Wood Thrushes. I hear other chipmunks farther away. I could hear some other birds that, because of how distant they were, I couldn’t tell what they were. I can’t believe, Lang, how good of a chipmunk-studier you are. This is probably the 14th of 15th time I’ve listened to this recording.

    I now hear Eastern Chipmunks give this call on many occasions, oftentimes while fishing with my dad. I find the clucking call unique, and oftentimes eerie, when I’m at my grandparents house and I hear a distant, echoing chipmunk in the woods.

    My mom and I were once at a place in Constantine, MI called Jimm Timm County Park. A whole group of about a dozen chipmunks were clucking at once. The sound of it in the distance was slightly eerie. We found this place by accident. We thought we’d stop by to do some birding, but I guess the chipmunks were the highlight of the day. We did, however, see a magnificent Great Blue Heron in flight, while giving a descending series of unusual grunts.

    Please type more blogs Lang. I would GLADLY appreciate it.

    • Zack: This autumn I will be in Australia and hope to do a number of blog posts from there. But next winter I’ll be focusing on expanding the site, adding soundscape products and featuring a number of new recordings on our blog as we attempt to draw in a larger audience.

  5. Hello,
    I am conducting a study on chipmunk responses to alarm calls and am in need of a chipmunk cluck recording. Would I be allowed to use one of your recordings, and if so, could you email it to me?
    Thank You,
    Cameron

  6. Nicholas Hlifka says:

    Verry nice. I have heard this sound around my home, and I was never sure what it was. Thanks for identifying it for me!

  7. Love it–I can never be pampered too much. Question: Do chipmunks give different alarm calls for different predators, or doe one recognize they’re clucking at an aerial predator because the calls trace the bird’s path?

    • Dorothy: This evening I plan to post recordings of the chipmunk’s ground predator alarm call plus another vocalization called the chip-trill. I will also describe the differences between the three call types.

  8. Once again, fabulous stuff, Lang. I’ve often quizzed people in the field about the hollow cluck call – most do not realize it is a chipmunk. And we’ve made many a ponder about why they do it, and now we know! Excellent work!

  9. Love chippies! I listen to this via phones as my pet rabbits react to alarms of other prey specie. Live and recorded calls of predators –owl, hawk, wolf– overload their stress response predisposing to health imbalance/disease. Yikes! If bunbuns on the third floor hear night owl calls they thump, bunnies on the second floor pick up the tom tom and pass it along to friends on the ground floor, while I wander the dark house sleepless, calming bunny heads, cooing, yawning … wishing I had appropriate sound countermeasures to soothe them.

  10. Very nice. The hawk really has them going. Great work on figuring this all out.

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