By Pam Roy
On a hike to Pratt Lake last fall, a shrill bleat emanated from the boulders we were walking through. It got closer and closer until a tiny pika popped out of the boulders right next to the trail. It sat up on a rock within 12 inches of us, scolding us for being in its territory. With each bleat it opened its tiny mouth so wide that we were able to look down its throat. The force of each vocalization lifted the pika up off the rock. We got the message and moved on.
This experience was quite unusual. Most hikers have heard pikas while trekking through a boulder field, but not everyone is has actually seen them. Their signature high pitched vocalizations sound something like “peeeak!” This often stops the hiking group while everyone looks around for the source of the call. It mysteriously moves from under rock to rock, and a hiker feels lucky to get a quick glimpse of couple of ears before the sound emerges from another spot in the rocks.
Weighing in at around six ounces,with a 6-8 inch long body, this tannish grey member of the rabbit family has large ears and a very short tail. Pikas are also known as “coneys” or rock rabbits, and they live in alpine and subalpine territory throughout the western states and also parts of Asia. Active mainly by day, they eat greens, grasses, sedges and herbs. Food for winter is collected and laid out on rocks to dry during summer. When dry, it’s moved into chambers and passageways under the rocks for winter storage. When the talus fields are covered with snow, pikas remain active under the rocks, moving through their passages of tunnels, eating the dried hay.
Pikas are very territorial, defending their hay from would-be raiders. Sitting on “their” rock pile, they loudly proclaim their territory with a series of high-pitched calls.
Breeding season is in spring with litters of two to six young born in May to June. Occasionally a second litter is born in August.
You may have read the recent WTA blog reporting on a study currently being done by the US Department of Fish and Wildlife to determine if the pika is to be given protection under the Endangered Species Act. Several recent research projects have shown that warming temperatures are taking a toll on pikas,
Wildlife biologists and archaeologists suggest that 10,000 years ago, pikas were much more widely distributed. As glaciers retreated and climates warmed, pikas retreated upslope to subalpine zones, reducing their habitat throughout the world. Even brief exposure to temperatures over 78 degrees can cause death to the pika. With glaciers retreating at a rapid rate, the concern for pikas has perhaps earmarked them as an indicator species for the effects of global warming and its broader implications for a variety of species.