On an autumn hike up into the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier National Park, I found these adorable American Pika (Ochotona princeps) busy topping off their hay piles before winter sets in.
American Pika inhabit mountain side boulder and talus fields, where they live and store hay among the rocks. Pika don’t hibernate. Instead, they survive the frigid winters by remaining active in their rock piles under the snow.
In fact, it is summer’s heat that threatens the pika more than winter’s cold. Like rabbits, to whom they are related, pika have limited thermoregulation capabilities. They overheat and die when exposed to temperatures as low as 78 °F (25.5 °C) for more than several hours. While global warming pushes them to higher and higher elevations, they can become trapped on their mountainside “rock islands”. This limits their ability to migrate to cooler climes.
Pika now serve as an indicator species for climate change. In fact, Pika have already disappeared from more than one-third of their habitat in Oregon and Nevada.
Tips for Finding Pika in the Wild
- Hang out at subalpine boulder fields or talus slopes.
- Avoid hot days, when they will likely be deep in their rock piles trying to avoid the heat.
- Listen for their short squeaking calls.
- Watch for quick darting motions as they sprint among the boulder.
- Look for little round furry balls sitting on top of larger boulders, as you can see in my photos above. Pika like these perches for keeping an eye on things.
- Look for piles of hay stacked under larger rocks, especially in the fall. Pika stockpile hay to get them through the winter.
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