Wildlife Info Blurb: What is a “Pika?”

How A Pika Saved a Mountain Man

One of my favorite wildlife species is known as a “pika” or rock rabbit.  A member of the rabbit order, Lagomorpha, these small critters inhabit talus slopes and rock slides generally at higher altitudes in western North America– north to Alaska.  Pikas are unique in that they cut green vegetation, allow it to dry, then feed upon it during cold winters.  They do not stockpile seeds and other food as do chipmunks and some rodents.  In the late summer, it is common to see these small animals, perhaps the size of a rat, carrying green vegetation to piles near their den areas within the interior of the rocky slopes.  By the time winter rolls around with dense snowfall and cold temperatures, pikas have accumulated substantial piles of vegetation, now dry and cured “hay” ready for later consumption near their dens.  Come spring, hay piles are greatly reduced or completely absent.

Pikas have unique vocalizations that often identifies their near presence a peculiar squeaking sound.  In the summertimes, they are often seen sunning themselves on rocks near their dens.  Of course, they have to be constantly vigilant due to predators which highly value them as prey.  Coyotes, foxes and hawks especially keep sharp lookout for these small mammals as tasty treats.

A recent article in the Idaho Statesman by Rocky Barker reviewed research on American pikas by biologist Erik Beever, summarized as follows:  Pikas are disappearing from parts of Idaho to California where as they were found as recent as 10 years ago.  Factors responsible for their disappearance are thought to include less winter snow and summer rain although other habitat features still seem adequate.  Apparently there have been major pika distributional losses due to precipitation in the Great Basin over the past century.  Precipitation in the form of insulating snow to minimize exposure to extreme cold and stress is probably an important factor.  Summer precipitation affects food availability.  Over the past ¾ of a century, snowpack has declined and temperatures have slowly been rising.

Unexpectedly, smaller pika populations thought to be more prone to extinctions in 1999 actually increased in numbers in 2003 to 2008.  In Idaho, pikas continue to thrive in the alpine areas of the Sawtooth Mountains, but also seem to have done well in the high desert–Craters of the Moon near Arco.  This area is dominated by lava flows, caves and fissures dating 2,000 to 15,000 years ago.

As in other locals, Idaho typical pika habitats are talus, broken rock slides, steep mountainsides, base of cliffs.  In these habitats, pikas with their thick fur, cannot survive temperatures as warm as 77 to 85 degrees during the summertimes.  However, in Craters of the Moon National Preserve lava, these animals seemed to thrive, probably due to cooler “microrefugia” within the lava deposits which serve as efficient insulation against high temperatures.  In the nearby Crater’s talus fields, pikas known to be present in the 1980’s are now gone.

In my own experience, I have trapped pika’s in Laramie, WYs, Snowy Range, in the Gray’s River (WY) area and observed them at Cottonwood Lake of Star Valley, WY, and in SE Wyoming’s Bridger National Forest, and in the Wasatch Mountains of southeastern (Bear Lake) Idaho.  In the latter areas where previously seen, they are no longer present.  Pikas are a fascinating little creature and are well worth any effort made to observe them in their natural habitats.

About Pikas or Rock Rabbits: 

Ochotona princeps, and O. collaris are scientific names for the two North American species; the former is southern in distribution, the latter northern.  Of the total of 18 surviving species, 16 are mostly in Asia.  Their fur is grayish to brownish and they have no visible tail.  They are diurnal in activity.  Two to five young are born in May-June and in July- August (two litters per year) with a gestation period of about 30 days.  Animals are colonial and each animal has its own territory within the colony, which it defends and lives in throughout life.  Territoriality is maintained due to limited numbers of nest sites and the necessity of defending food hay piles.  Females are monogamous.  Males provide no parental care and are aggressively excluded following birth of litters.  Few live beyond five years, maximum of seven.  Predators include hawks, foxes, martens, fishers, wolverines, lynxs, coyotes, bears, weasels and ermines.  The latter are able to enter pika dens due to their slender bodies.

See Forsyth, A.  1999.  Mammals of North America – Temperate and Arctic Regions.  Firefly Books, Willowdale, Ontario.