Pika or Rock Rabbit — My Favorite

The North American Pika is a member of the rabbit order Lagomorpha and a member of the family Ochotonidae.  Pikas are generally smaller and have shorter hind legs and ears than their rabbit cousins. One of my own personal favorites, the pika, is small, about eight inches (203 mm) long and 4 ounces (113 g) with no tail. Pikas have short dense fur to conserve heat, even with fur clad foot soles, surviving in habitats where most other mammals would freeze to death. I first encountered and was fascinated by pikas as a youngster hearing their “chirps” then seeing them while fishing in a volcanic lake in southern Idaho. Later, I scientifically studied and trapped pikas in western and in eastern Wyoming. They are fascinating inhabitants normally of higher altitude timberline rocky or talus slopes. However, they may also inhabit rock piles at lower elevations. Perceptive visits to timberline areas in wilderness areas and in national parks will often result in sightings of these fun and shy little rabbits.

Pikas are the only members of the rabbit family who cache food. They have a unique habit of cutting summer vegetation, including sedges, grasses, herbs and tender flowering plants, in meadows surrounding their rocky slope dens. They cut, carry and deposit these plants to a location above or near their dens. By fall, these deposits of vegetation are cured and dry, appearing a miniature hay stacks. Since pikas do not hibernate, these “hay piles” on occupied rocky slopes serve as a continuous supply of food during the frigid and austere winters of drifting and heavy snowfalls in the high mountains. Similar to cousin hares and rabbits, pikas reingest fecal pellets.

The North American pika, family Ochotonidae, has two species, Ochotona princeps and Ochotona collaris. O. collaris principally inhabits Alaska and is present in nearby Canadian provinces of Yukon, Mackenzie, British Columbia, and Northwest Territories. Whereas Ochotona princeps is scattered south from the state of Washington to Arizona in mountain habitats ncluding Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevadas, and Cascade ranges of western U.S. and has 36 named subspecies (Hall, 1981). Sixteen of the surviving 18 species of Ochotona primarily are found in Asia.

Ochotona collaris has one annual molt whereas O. princeps has two molts. Pikas have excellent hearing and vision and move from rock to rock with the greatest of ease. In warmer weather, they can be seen sunning themselves on rocks near their dens. They communicate vocally with a nasal bleep or a sharp bark and can be heard vocalizing during daily plant gathering activities, even when present inside their rocky dens.

Pika habitat areas are small in size. Since optimal talus habitat is limited, populations are concentrated. A male’s territory is often adjacent to a female’s territory. During mating season, a male’s territory may overlap that of an adjacent female. Females may repel other females at this time but are less aggressive towards males. Pikas are not normally aggressively territorially except at harvest time when trespassers are chased away. Territories cover several hundred square meters. After young are born, males are vigorously excluded with no paternal care. Two to five young are born per litter, two litters per year, helpless with eyes shut following a 30 day gestation period. Pikas may live six to seven years and remain in the same habitat area for a lifetime.

Predators include eagles, hawks, fox, marten, ermine, fisher wolverine, lynx, bear. These all attempt to prey upon pikas either during foraging activities of when sunning themselves on home den rocks. Ermines follow and seek to prey upon them through their maze of rock tunnels.

Conservation status: There have been concerns that the American pika is reacting negatively to alleged warming changes in climate. However, it was found that occupancy of most of potential central pika habitat is high, that pika populations are thriving with no discernible negative climatic effects. In fact, models with variables other than climate often appear to be better indicators of site longevity. Pikas appear to tolerate more diverse habitat and climatic conditions than previously known such as thriving in hot sites by nocturnal activity and more time spent in cooler dens. Some habitats appear to have been compromised by human activity such as cattle grazing and other factors. However, in marginal habitats in the Great Basin, unoccupied available habitat does exist, perhaps due to poor pika dispersal capability.

Forsyth, A. 1999. Mammals of North America, Temperate and Arctic Regions. Firefly Books, Buffalo, N.Y. 350 p.

Grosvenor, G.M., Ed. 1979. Wild Animals of North America. The National Geographic Society, Washington, D. C. 406 p.

Hall, E.R. 1981. The Mammals of North America. Vol. 1. John Wiley & Sons, New York. 600 p.

MacDonald, S.O. and C. Jones. 1987. Octhotona collaris. Mammalian Species, No. 281, pp. 1-4.

Smith, A.T. 2020. Conservation status of American pikas, (Ochotona princeps). J. Mammal., Vol 101, Issue 6, December 2020, pp. 1466-1488.

Photo by Andrew T. Smith, J. Mammal., Vol. 101, Issue 6, December 2020.