Summit Outside: The perky pika
September 10, 2010
High up above timberline in and amongst boulders you can often see little brown furry creatures and hear little high pitched eeenncck sounds and a variety of squeaks and squeals they use to communicate with each other and their marmot neighbors. These squeaky noises are made by pika, little creatures belonging to the rabbit family, and they are sometimes even called “rock rabbit.” They look rabbit-like but smaller, with small ears and luxurious whiskers. If you sit very still on a rocky slide area you can watch them dart around, and if you are lucky and stay really still, they might come up to you and nibble on your shoe laces. With round bodies, prominent ears, no visible tail, and weighing just 5 ounces, pikas are incredibly cute. Despite their cuddly appearance, American pikas are among North America’s toughest animals because they are one of the few mammals in the lower 48 states that can survive their entire lives in the cold, windswept high alpine terrain above treeline.
Pikas feed on a wide variety of plant matter primarily grasses, sedges, shrub twigs, moss, and lichen. Starting about mid-July, you may find small piles of vegetation beneath rock overhangs. Pikas gather fresh grasses and lay them in stacks to dry. Once the grasses dry out, the pikas take this hay back to the burrows for storage. It is not uncommon for pikas to steal hay from others; the resulting disputes are usually exploited by neighboring predators like ferrets and large birds. This cache of food, which could fill a bathtub, is their stockpile in preparation for a harsh winter. Pikas are more active during the daytime. and they show their peak activity before the winter season. Pikas do not hibernate, so they rely on the collected hay for warm bedding and food.
Like rabbits, they initially produce soft green feces, which they eat again to extract further nutrition, before producing the final, solid, fecal pellets. Like their rabbit relatives, pikas are prolific: Females can deliver two or three litters of as many as five pups per season. and pika pups reach adult size in just three months – if a predator does not eat them first. Weasels and martins can wiggle their way into the pika’s rocky haven.
Human activity and global climate change appear to be pushing the American pika population to ever-higher elevations and thus possibly toward extinction. This is based on studies of pika habitation over the past 40,000 years in the region between the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. Unlike many wildlife species that are shifting their ranges north or to higher altitudes in response to changing climate, pikas and other alpine animals have nowhere else to go. In some locations, entire pika populations already have disappeared. Friends tell me where they use to see a lot of pikas, they have seen very few this summer in Summit County. For pikas, one serious problem is heat itself. To survive in summer, they must descend into the cool, moist rock piles at the base of mountain slopes on hot afternoons. As temperatures rise, researchers say pikas will abandon lower-elevation talus slopes and migrate higher into the mountains until they can go no farther; much like living on the highest point of a sinking island. So far they are not on the Endangered Species List.
It would be very sad to lose the pika. Because they are so cute, they have a lot human fans. “Pika, Pika” by Walkin’ Jim Stoltz may be the only pika song in the world. The pikas (called nakiusagi) on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido are loved and protected by the “Pika Fan Club” headquartered in Sapporo. If you go online you can find a pika enthusiast’s website and fan club. Check out Pika Works. You can buy pika pictures and pika postcards online. Hike up around Loveland Pass and find some pikas!
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.