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What is a Pika

By John Finley

A Pika is a very cute, small mammal that lives usually in rock piles or rock slides in the western mountainous regions of North America. They have really large ears, whiskers, and round hamster-like body. They have a brownish gray fur. The Pika is an herbivore and is a member of the rabbit family. Their homes are normally in the 8000 to 12000 feet range. They will mate in late winter and give birth to several babies by spring. The young will mature quickly and be able to leave the nest in about four weeks.

The small Pika spends all of its life looking for food. They are diurnal, feeding during the day. This can be dangerous as they make a fine meal for birds of prey, fox, coyotes and weasels. The Pika’s are very vocal, communicating with their other Pika neighbors, especially when danger is near. There is serious thought that the Pika’s warning calls differ depending on the type of predator that is near. There cry, pie-ca or pee-ca, can be loud and shrill.

They do not hibernate in winter and must gather all sorts of material to make their den comfortable and warm. The den is located deep into the rocks. These rock piles or rock slides offer considerable protection for a small animal. They must also harvest enough food to get through the winter. There is danger here, for they must spend a great deal of time out in the open, running at great speed into forest and field to obtain the grasses, flowers, plants, hay, etc., they will need. The Pika will eat its fill each day of the plants it has collected but will place all leftovers into a storage pile called by humans, a haystack. Depending on the ambition of the Pika, the haystacks can be rather large, up to a bushel. This is huge when you think of their diminutive size. It is interesting to watch, they will move their haystack if they feel it is not protected enough. This moving project can take considerable time. The haystack must be dried for winter and cannot be wet with rain or snow. When the plant material is dry, the Pika moves it into the den for the winter months. Proper planning is important. There are about forty species of Pika’s worldwide. It is interesting to note that the Pika’s living in the Eurasia Mountains of Western Russia will sometimes share their dens with snow finches. One has to wonder what they might have to say to each other.

There are a few Pika that feel they do not need to work hard to build their food haystacks for winter. They prefer to steal the haystacks from their neighbors. Naturally the neighbor becomes extremely upset and a battle often erupts. What the Pika’s don’t seem to realize, this noise and commotion will attract predators, perhaps a hawk, weasel or bobcat. Their lives are now in danger.

It is believed that the Pika’s originally came to North America over the Bering Land Bridge. They can be found living alone or as family groups. Family units will share in the food gathering, watching the children and guarding their home from predators.

For humans they have very little value except to make those of us laugh when we sit and watch them. They will also drive a photographer crazy since they seem to travel at warp speed. Nevertheless, they are our friends and neighbors and must be treated as such.

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