Pikas are hamster-sized mammals that live in high mountain environments. They are not rodents, however, but close relatives of rabbits. They make their homes under the large rocks of talus slopes, finding shelter there from predators and the elements.
There are about 30 species of pika in world, most of which are found in Asia. Two species live in North America. Our local species is the American Pika (Ochotona princeps).
If you have done any hiking in the Cascades of Washington or Oregon, you have probably heard pikas making their loud eeemp! calls. This call alerts other pikas to the presence of a predator, such as a swooping hawk. Pikas hit the deck when danger threatens– they scurry down into crevices beneath the rocks.
The pika’s call is also used to establish a territory, similar to the way songs are used by many birds. The choicest territories are those at the edge of the talus field, close to the meadows where pikas feed. Even though many pikas may inhabit a talus field, they are not social animals.
Pikas are relatively easy to find and observe. Their habitat is very specific– find a good-sized talus slope with a meadow nearby and there’s a good chance that it is occupied by pikas. Unlike many mammals, pikas are diurnal (active by day). If you sit still and wait patiently, you are likely to see pikas going about their business among the rocks. And then there’s that eeemp! sound. If you get to know that sound, you will be able to tell whenever pikas are near.
The warm months of summer are a time of bustling activity for pikas. This is when they raise their offspring and stuff their adorable little faces with grasses and other plants. Pikas are known as little haymakers because, well, they make hay. They gather bundles of grass or leafy plants and lay these out to dry on the rocks. Each pika makes its own stockpile of hay that it later uses as a food supply.
Winter in the mountains brings deep snows and green plants are scarce at this time. Pikas don’t hibernate, so they must rely on their hay to survive the winter. They also tunnel beneath the snow to find what grasses and forbes they can.
Interestingly, there are no pikas in the Olympic Mountains of Washington, even though there is plenty of habitat there. They have been unable to cross the lowland valleys that divide the Olympics from the Cascades. During the ice ages, when the lower elevations were more tolerable to pikas, the Olympic Mountains were surrounded by a mile-high wall of glacial ice that pikas could not cross.
Like polar bears, pikas are losing habitat as the world warms up due to human-caused climate change. Pikas are generally not able to tolerate warm temperatures. As the environment warms up, the zone of temperatures that pikas require is moving to higher and higher elevations. The pikas must move up slope, but eventually there will be nowhere for them to go. It is as though there is a rising ‘sea’ of heat that is drowning the mountaintop world of the pika. Because of this phenonmenon, the American Pika was considered for listing as an endangered species. Unfortunately, the pika was denied this status.
The pikas that live on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge are notable because they live at the lowest elevations that pikas are found in the contiguous U.S.– around 1,000 feet!