Pika

A Pika in the Rocky Mountains, guarding it's territory. It is pretty hard to describe them without using the word "cute".

 

The hardy souls who hike and backpack through mountains get a chance to see a small mammal that is rarely observed by people. I remember years ago when I made my first backpacking trip over the continental divide in Colorado. I walked past a rock slide and heard a high pitched squeek. I looked all around for the bird making the noice but could not see a thing. The real culprit was a Pika.

 
Pikas are actually in the rabbit familly, but they look more like wild guinea pigs. They have fairly small, round ears and roman noses. Pikas appear to be tailess, but their tails are actually so small they are hidden within their fur. The fur is a grayish brown which blends in well with the rocks. Some types of Pikas have collars of lighter fur around their necks.

While adults may grow up to ten inches in length, in a colony there will be pikas of all sizes, since there is a wide range of ages in the colonies. They scurry about from rock piles to grassy areas and back to the rocks again. It's hard to watch them for any length of time and not think of the word cute.

Most types of Pikas are found in Asia. In North America we have 2 types of Pikas, and fossil evidence indicates that these types of Pikas actually crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia millions of years ago.

Pikas have many enemies. Coyotes, hawks, eagles, martins and weasels will all kill the Pika if they get the chance. When the Pika sees most of these preditors it's responce is to let out a shrill squeek or whistle sound. This sound serves two purposes. First, it tells the rest of the colony that there is danger near by and warns them to be careful. Second, it lets the preditor know that it has been noticed and can't make an easy stalk on the would be victem.

An exception to this strategy is when the weasel is around. It is one of the few preditors that is actually small enough to slip in to the rock piles and follow the Pika. Instead of whistling and possibly alerting a weasel that did not see it, the Pika will immediately duck down into the rock pile and run for safety.

Home for a pika is usually in the scree above the tree line.

Pikas are creatures of high elevations and cold climates. They tend to live above the timber line in the harshest of environments. Some of these locations are snowless for only three monthes out of the year. Yet these little critters do not hibernate. They have found another way to make it through the long winter monthes.

Pikas have many nicknames. "rock rabbit", "coney", "mouse hare", and "piping hares" are all nicknames of pikas. But perhaps the most telling name of all is "haymaker". The way that Pikas are able to survive through the extremely long winters of the mountains is by making hay piles. Summer, spring and fall last for only a few months. In that time the Pikas are furiously busy cutting grass and flowers and adding them to their hay stacks.

Once winter comes the pikas survive by eating from their hay piles. They also eat lichen off the surrounding rocks.

Pikas are actually pretty well prepared for winter. When the snow comes they dig tunnels from their den areas to the hay piles. They also have very dense, thick hair that keeps them quite warm in the harshest of weather. On bright sunny days when the weather is bitterly cold and other animals are either hibernating or hiding in dens, the pikas can be found sunning themselves on exposed rocks.

Pikas live in some of the most rugged and beautiful areas on earth. Their world can be covered in snow for 9 monthes of the year. They survive by making hay from grass and flowers during the summer, and then eating the stored hay during the long winter.

The hay piles also form the basis of interesting social interactions with the rest of the colony. For much of the year the Pika's are very territorial, and their territories center around their hay piles. Watching a colony of Pika's is like watching an endless turf battle. Pikas throughout the colony are constantly running others off from their territory, and then running back to defend their 20 square meters of land. Frequently the Pikas must cross other Pika's home areas to get to the spots where the plants grow, so it is a never ending drama.

The zelous protection of territory continues into the winter when Pikas guard their hay stacks. But in the spring there seems to be a truce that is called. Pikas that have been little misers all year long suddenly are open to sharing. At about the same time that Pikas start looking for mates they also begin letting other Pikas use their haystacks. This generous behaviour ends at about the time that mates are selected.

In my opinion, this behaviour not only lets the Pikas find mates, but also lets the colony share food stores at the very time when food may be at it's lowest for many of the residents of the colonies. Typically the Pikas start breeding at about the same time that the snow melts and new food plants become available. Females may have several liters during the summer. Males do not help in raising the young. The young Pikas are essentually full grown in about 3 months.

If you find yourself above the tree line in the summer and hear the whistle of the "rock rabbit" stop for a little while and watch these little busy bodies. They will often hide in the talus when you first appproach, but pretty soon they will emerge from their burrows. Once they become used to your presence they will resume their normal activities. Watching them collocting food, sunning themselves, chasing each other around and whistling at each other will be sure to entertain you. You'll be glad that took the time to visit the rarely seen Pika.