As I hike the high country, there is a non-bird call that always brightens my way. A mini rabbit, or rock rabbit in Jack vernacular, the pika, has been declared North America’s cutest mammal. I won’t argue with this declaration, unless it’s compared to my grandkids.
On a scramble up two gnarly peaks above Alta Ski Resort a few weeks ago, my spirits went sky high with an abundance of pika busily gathering hay for their winter larder. Their Ehhhhh! Notes surrounded us, tiny furry forms darting in and out of boulder fields while we made our way to the summits.
This was especially heartening given the warming trends, which push these little spirits beyond their limits of heat tolerance in too many locations. Pikas have disappeared from more than one-third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Nevada. Despite this, the American pika has not been listed under the Endangered Species Act. The pika can overheat and die within 6 hours when exposed to temperatures as mild as 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
American pikas are famously vocal. They chirp, sing, and scream in an effort to protect their territory. They use their signature call to alert others in the colony of an approaching predator, to establish boundaries, and in some cases, to attract mates.
Pikas spend a great deal of time gathering vegetation for winter which they cure on rocks to prevent molding, then store their piles under rocks for safekeeping, occasionally moving them so they don't get rained on. Haystacks, as they're called, weigh a whopping 61 pounds on average. The timing of haying seems to correlate to the amount of precipitation from the previous winter. They appear to assess the nutritional value of available food and harvest accordingly. Pikas select plants that have the higher caloric, protein, lipid, and water content. They also enjoy their fecal pellets, which have more energy value than stored plant food, by consuming them directly or store for a later sweet treat.
Cedar Breaks National monument in southern Utah has adopted the pika as its token mammal. You can get your own stuffy who has a remarkable resemblance to the real deal. Your donation will help the Monument with its field research on the pika and other park critters.
Considering pika are mostly found in alpine and subalpine environments with cool temperatures and deep snow, I was shocked to find them occurring at Craters of the Moon NM in Idaho averaging 6000’ elevation. Summer temperatures at the Monument can soar to 170 degrees on the black rock surface, which would fry a pica in short order. Yet, here they are, finding relief in lava tubes and deep crevasses. Unlike their diurnal alpine cousins, they are primarily crepuscular- active early morning- late evening.
The American pika can be found throughout the mountains of western North America, from Canada to New Mexico. Of the 30 global species, only two inhabit North America, which includes the collared pika found in Alaska and Canada.
Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society, and I’m wild about Utah and its rock rabbits!
Image: Courtesy Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/photos/pika-animal-wildlife-nature-cute-5326942/
Audio: Courtesy & ©
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/
Cane, Jim, Voice: Dick Hurren, Pikas, Our First Haymakers Wild About Utah, October 28, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/pikas-our-first-haymakers/
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw, Pika Country: Climate Change at the Top of the World, September 18, 2020, https://www.amazon.com/Pika-Country-Climate-Change-World/dp/1970039027
Plumb, Sally, A Pika’s Tail, May 1, 2012, https://www.amazon.com/Pikas-Tail-Sally-Plumb/dp/0931895251