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Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

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Pikas

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A few summers ago I had a brief encounter with a favorite animal near the shore of Snow Lake at the base of Unicorn Peak in the Tatoosh Range in Mount Rainier National Park. The sky was as blue as it gets, that alpine blue, a sky un-obscured by the scuz and crud of modern lowland skies. The air, ah the air, spicy with the high alpine perfume of conifers and wild flowers. As I walked around the south side of the lake along the base of the talus slope, a sharp "eenk" and then another split the air. I instantly recognized the call of the pika, a small mammal classified in the same order as the rabbits but in a different family.

Pikas are ventriloquists, they throw their voices. I knew from experience that I would have to look carefully to find one. Suddenly I noticed movement almost opposite where I thought I heard the pika. There it was. A small brown ball, a little smaller than a Guinea pig, all hunkered down on the flat top of a boulder. The name pika is our version of the northeastern Siberian Tunga people's name, peeka.

Our pika, Ochotona princeps, is distributed primarily in subalpine areas in the Cascade, Sierra and Rocky Mountains. They haven't made it across the Puget Sound lowland to the Olympic Mountains. Pikas are absent from the Klamath Mountains and Vancouver Island.

Ochotona is a Mongolian term. Princeps means a chief based on a Native American name for the animal that translates, "little chief hare," hare as in rabbit. Pikas often do look chief-like. They sit on their boulder in stoic silence, nose slightly tilted upward, small rounded ears back, bright little eyes surveying their rocky talus home.

Rugged individualists, pikas get together only to mate and maintain nearest neighbor male-female territories. This does not mean that the colony does not watch out for one another. They use their sharp call to announce territory and alarm. There are reports of pikas getting together to totally confuse their mortal enemy the weasel. If a weasel is pursuing one pika, other pikas start to run about distracting and tiring the predator. Is this altruism, a behavior where individuals are willing to lay down their lives for the good of the colony, or just plain foolishness caused by the excitement of the moment?

Pikas do not hibernate. They remain active all winter under snow in the spaces created by the jumble of rocks and boulders of the talus slopes. They subsist on several bushels of dried, cured hay, vegetation that individual pikas collect from surrounding meadows. Pikas spend the brief summer and autumn making hay. Pikas make quick trips from their protective rocks to collect mouthfuls of fresh plants. They select species that are high in nutrients and avoid some abundant species that may contain toxins. Back in the talus they pile up the plant material in little haystacks, on, or often under, rocky overhangs. Later, pikas move the hay to dry spots within the rocky talus for winter-time consumption.

Many of us should take a lesson from the pika. When it comes to preparing for hard times the pika is no piker.

-- Dr. Frank Lang           

 


 

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