Pika, Courtesy Pixabay, Makieni77 Contributor
American Pika
Courtesy Pixabay, Makieni77 Contributor
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/

Additional Reading:

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

Pikas, Our First Haymakers

Pikas, Our First Haymakers
Photo © 2004-2008 Mark Chappell

“Make hay while the sun shines” is a venerable bit of farm wisdom that encourages cutting and drying of hay during fair weather. One, two, possibly three cuttings of alfalfa hay have been baled and stacked this summer by Utah’s farmers to feed dairy cows and horses this winter. More traditionally, ranchers have cut meadow or marsh hay to be piled in the lofts of their barns.

Utah’s first haymakers were not ranchers at all, however. These earliest haymakers cut hay for their own consumption. To see and hear these daytime haymakers, you must travel high into our mountains, to 9,000 feet or higher. Look for a boulder strewn talus slope or rockslide. Listen for this call….. if you hear it, you have found the pika, our first haymaker. That call was either declaring the pika’s individual territory or an alarm announcing you. These rounded relatives of our rabbits resemble a tawny-coated chinchilla or a plush, plump guinea pig. They have nearly circular small ears and no apparent tail.

All day long during the alpine summer, pikas are busy cutting grasses, sedges and wildflowers from neighboring meadows. They haul this back by the mouthful to tuck in crevasses in their stony stronghold to dry. These stockpiles are their winter larder. You see, unlike their alpine kin, such as marmots, ground squirrels and chipmunks, our pikas don’t burrow and they don’t hibernate. Unlike the snowshoe hare, pikas don’t get out much either once the snow flies. Under the snow pack, they simply dine on hay.

Pikas are strange little lagomorphs
(relatives of rabbits and hares)
that live in rocky areas and talus slopes
in alpine habitats in much of the
mountainous western US and Canada.
Photo © 2004-2008 Mark Chappell

In Utah, poke around for pikas amid high peaks along the mountainous central spine of our state, from the Uintas south to Brian Head, wherever peaks reach toward tree line and you can find. There you may find pikas making hay or loafing atop prominent stones in their rock jumbles, or contributing to the territorial calls of their talus slope choir. Their intolerance of heat keeps them from spreading downslope. Like the moose, they are one of the animals that will fare poorly with significant climate warming. For now, though, you can continue to peek for picas amid Utah’s glorious alpine scenery.


Photo: Images of the Natural World, Courtesy & Copyright 2004-2008 Mark Chappell https://faculty.ucr.edu/~chappell/INW/
American Pika Page: https://faculty.ucr.edu/~chappell/INW/mammals/pika.shtml
Audio: Trout and Berry Days by Leaping Lulu, https://wildaboututah.org/about-us/
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Voice: Richard (Dick) Hurren, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

American Pika, Utah Division of Natural Resources, https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=ochoprin

Pikas in Utah, Video from Utah DWR, https://youtu.be/czMoUzBUkTE

“Damn Cute Pikas” Narrated by David Attenborough and posted by Paul Garita on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVJuRgil0wQ&NR=1
American Pika, Nature Works, New Hampshire Public Television, https://www.nhptv.org/NATUREWORKS/americanpika.htm

Pika, Utah DWR Instragram Account, https://www.instagram.com/p/r7_haQtoZC/?modal=true

Fluffy_Memory_6238, Show me your war cry (Pika alert), Animals Being Derps, Reddit.com, https://www.reddit.com/r/AnimalsBeingDerps/comments/ppcaaw/show_me_your_war_cry/

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Sensitive Species biologist Kevin Labrum talks with Brett Prettyman from SL Tribune about Pikas in Utah