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Behold the pika

American pika with mouthful of dried grass. Sequoia National Park, CA

American pika with mouthful of dried grass. Sequoia National Park, CA

Behold the pika… Well, if you did behold one of these furry little mammals, you were quite lucky. They are quite shy, and live in places reached only by hiking and horseback. Pikas resemble tailless mice, being grey-ish brown or a rusty red. Their soft, long fur covers their body of about 15 centimeters (6 inches) in length and they weigh between 125 and 200 grams (4.5 to 7.1 ounces).

The genus for the 29-30 species of pika is Ochotona and despite the similarity to mice, they are not rodents, but rather related to rabbits and hares. But unlike rabbits and hares, pikas are diurnal – they are active during the day.

These reticent animals are found mostly in Asia, with some in Eastern Europe. Two species are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait isthmus and now make their homes in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, or the Sierras and Rocky Mountains. They love mountainous areas and high elevations, living in rocky habitats or making burrows in steppe areas. The pikas in North America live among the rocks, rather than in burrows. Depending on their environment, pikas may be found as individuals, couples, or in family groups, sharing duties of food gathering and keeping watch.

Pikas may have a variety of calls, but in main there are two – one is a long-call or song, used to attract a mate. The other is an alarm call. The alarm call may be sounded to chase others away from their food, but is more commonly used to warn others of a predator. Remarkably, just when the predator alarm is sounded depends on the predator. For instance, if a marten is sighted, the alarm is sounded immediately, since a marten cannot follow the pika into a burrow or between rocks. However, if a weasel is sighted, the pika might wait to see if the weasel moved out of his territory, since the weasel can easily follow him into a burrow or rocky crag. Despite predators, pikas can live up to six years.

This charming recluse is an herbivore, munching on plants available according to the environment, season and climate. Like its lagomorph cousins, rabbits, a pika produces a soft green feces after eating, which it eats again to get even more nutrients, finally producing a solid fecal pellet. Or the green feces may be stored for later consumption. This fecal pellet has much more energy stored than hay.

The plants around can include grasses, sedges, thistles, flowers, shrub twigs, moss, lichen, forbs and fireweed. The pika will select plants that have the highest caloric, protein, lipid and water content when there is plenty available. While it can get its water from plants, the pika will also drink water directly when it is around. To maintain their metabolism, pikas can consume just about any plant in their neighborhood.

A unique feature about pikas is their making of hay piles, also called hay stacks. They live in cold environments but do not hibernate, so they need bedding and stored food to keep them warm and fed through the bad weather seasons. All the while they are foraging, they are also putting some plants and flowers aside for the hay piles. They can be seen carrying long stems along a log or across a meadow to add to the hay piles. They tend to prefer forbs and tall grasses for haying. Between feeding and haying they can make thirteen trips an hour with up to one hundred trips a day. The hay piles are built throughout the summer since winter comes early in their climes. There seems to be some question as to whether they lay the plants out to dry before adding them to a hay pile; probably they just let them dry on the hay stack. There are a host of calls and behaviors related just to protection of the hay piles. A pika has been known to steal from another pika’s hay pile, and the ensuing dispute can often attract predators. A pika may move its hay pile to protect it from rain or when finding a better storage spot. If, despite its diligence, the hay pile runs low of hay and feces, the pika will forage for lichen and cushion plants to complete its diet.

If you are interested in catching a glimpse or hearing pikas this summer in the United States, try:

  • Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mtn. National Park, CO
  • Loveland Pass, in rocks above parking area, CO
  • Cascade Canyon Trail on west side of Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, WY

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