Friday, September 24, 2010

Eeeek! Peeeep! Just who is that screaming from the mountain rocks?

They are elusive to see some of the time, but equally as up close and curious to be checking you out the next. One moment they are silent, the next they utter an amazing “Eeeek!” type of panic call and dash away to hide! These curious little fury creatures don’t live here in the lowlands. But anyone who has ventured up into the Cascades where high elevation open rocky slopes dot the landscape knows what I mean. The pika is a fascinating little mammal and survives in one of the harshest environments around us!
The pika is a small, industrious mammal that lives in our mountain regions, typically inhabiting the boulder-covered hillsides and rock-piles (aka talus) near timberline. Talus might seem like an inhospitable environment to us as we find it difficult and dangerous to traverse. But pikas can use the talus to escape predators and nasty weather. Under the surface is a labyrinth of pika-sized caves and passages. Still air trapped between the rocks, combined with a layer of snow over the surface, can insulate pikas from sub-zero temperatures and wind chill! Pikas lack the large hind legs that allow hares and rabbits to outrun some predators. But in talus, they can outmaneuver most predators!

They also are called "rock rabbits" by some. The 8-inch long, 7-ounce pika spends the summer busily cutting, gathering and drying leaves and grasses. It eats a variety of green plants like grasses, sedges, thistles, and fireweed. Some it will eat on the spot while some of it will be carried away and stored in a pile or "haystack." A pika haystack can contain as much as a bushel of plants! The pika will often move the pile to protect it from rain or to find a better drying spot. After the vegetation dries the pika will move it to its den deep in the rocks. The dried plants are then stored for use as a food source during the long high-altitude winters. They do not hibernate even in these harsh long snowy periods and thus have these food stores they worked all summer long to build to survive off of! When their food source starts to run low they will also supplement their needs by foraging on whatever is available under the snow, such as bark and lichen. A relative of the rabbit and hare, the pika is the size and shape of a guinea pig with a stocky, grayish-brown body. It has short legs, round ears, a tiny virtually invisible tail, and sharp curved claws. It is very alert and has excellent hearing and vision which helps protect it from predators like coyotes, weasels, martens and hawks. They emit a sharp, high-pitched whistle to alert other nearby pikas when predators are detected. Therefore they may well see the approach of a human as a similar threat and sound the alarms!
Females usually bear one or two litters, with two to four young in each. When the young are born, they have no hair and are blind. But within a short time they grow rapidly and are able to open their eyes. Amazing as it may sound, the babies will leave their mother after four weeks and are adult size in about three months. Pikas usually live for about four to seven years, which I find fascinating for such a small creature in the wild! So give them you attention the next time you see or hear one---they live in an amazing world of their own!

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