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Fauna Series No. 3







Faunal Position

Life Zones







Fauna of the National Parks — No. 3
Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley National Park
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Ochotona collaris [NELSON]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A small, gray, bobtailed, rabbitlike animal about 7 inches in length; gray above and white beneath. Though akin to the rabbits, pikas are more like guinea pigs in general appearance since they have short legs, chunky bodies, rounded ears, and "bobbed" tails (fig. 62). Pikas are also known as conies or little chief hares and they are the most intriguing and interesting of all the small mammals of Mount McKinley Park. The soles of the pika's feet are covered with dense felt-like pads of hair which enable it to hop about noiselessly. Were it not for their telltale shrill little "bleating" cries, they would quite escape detection since their color blends perfectly with the gray granite rocks on which they perch and their beady black eyes and sharp ears are keen to sense approaching danger. Length, 7 inches; hind foot, 1.2 inches.

collared pika
Figure 62.—The collared pika lives in rock piles and has small round ears, short legs, a chunky body, and a "bobbed" tail.
Photograph taken May 20, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5065.

IDENTIFICATION.—Pikas are smaller than ground squirrels and larger than meadow mice. They are rarely, if ever, found away from rock slides or boulder piles. Their small size, bobtails, rounded ears, padded feet, and ventriloquistic alarm notes, "yink, yink," are all good field characters.

DISTRIBUTION.—Pikas are rock dwellers and are most abundant just above timber line. They should be looked for only in the vicinity of rock slides and boulder piles since they do not venture far out on the open tundra. Pikas occur in the mountainous regions of western North America from New Mexico to Alaska.

HABITS.—We observed pikas breeding late in May and on June 6 a pregnant female containing four embryos, each half an inch in length was collected. The young are born in sheltered nests deep beneath the rocks and, although we looked for them carefully, we did not discover any young pikas running about until after July 8 when the young were more than half grown. On July 28, near the Savage River bridge, we found young conies or pikas were active by 8 o'clock in the morning. By this date the young were almost as large as their parents. However the youngsters could be easily determined by their clear gray color while the adults at this season were tinged with brown about the head and neck.

The outstanding character of the pika is its provident nature. Unlike the larger and more powerful mammals this wee sprite takes thought for the morrow. Instead of spending a large portion of the warm summer in deep sleep and in sunning itself, as do the fat, lazy marmots, the pika literally "makes hay while the sun shines." As soon as the vegetation begins to mature in the late summer the pika starts to harvest his "hay" crop. Grass, sedges, and even heather plants are skillfully nipped off by the pika's sharp little teeth. As soon as the plants are cut the pika gathers them together in a bundle and then transports them by holding them crosswise in his mouth. The freshly cut "hay" is stacked under sheltering rocks where ventilation is good and where the cut plants remain until they are entirely cured. No farmer selects and harvests his hay crop more carefully than does the pika his crop. The pika's hay-making goes on until the frost blackens the vegetation and then, when the snowstorms of winter cover the landscape with a deep white blanket, the pika sits comfortably at home beside his well earned hay pile beneath a solid roof which is part of a whole snow-blanketed rock slide. He does not have to dig through the snow to get down to a food supply, as do the caribou and Dall sheep; he does not have to gnaw the bark of the stunted Arctic willows that stick up through the snow, as do the snowshoe rabbits; nor does our pika have to face cold trips across the open snow with the attendant danger of being pounced upon by some hungry hawk, owl, or red fox. Instead, by having forethought and providing a food supply for winter, he is able to run about and remain active all through the cold season of the year by traveling the underground passage ways and crevices between the broken rocks which form his home. He does not lie curled up stiffly in a frozen, almost death-like furry ball in a narrow underground cell, as do his cousins the ground squirrels and the marmots. His body is kept warm by a thick gray fur overcoat and his feet are incased in warm fur slippers which are noiseless and which never slip as he hops about the frozen rocks in going from his precious hay piles to his warm nest hidden beneath the rocks where even the powerful wolverine cannot dig him out.

On the morning of December 26, 1907, when the temperature was 31° below zero, Charles Sheldon found the pikas to be extremely active. They were calling to each other from various points on the moraine below Peter's Glacier at the north base of Mount McKinley.

In the spring, when the snow begins to melt and the first bare ground appears, the pikas venture forth in search of fresh food. Conies or pikas are early risers, being most active from 4:30 to 9 in the morning. On May 20 on a warm south-facing rock slide high up on the mountain near the main camp on Savage River, I watched a cony at a distance of 10 feet as he nibbled at a bit of heather. The little rascal put his left front foot on a sprig of the plant and while thus holding it down nipped off the leaves. The characteristic white collar which gives the pika its scientific name "collaris", was plainly visible. As I watched, the shadow of a soaring golden eagle flashed across the rocks where the pika was feeding. The pika disappeared instantly, but in less than 3 minutes curiosity overcame fear and the little gray sprite crept out from his hiding place in a crack between two rocks. He stole forward with ears raised, eyes shining, and nose twitching, trying to discover the cause of the disturbance (fig. 62).

On June 16, 1932, I visited the identical rock slide where I had found and photographed a pika on May 20, 1926. An individual of this species, possibly a descendant of the one which I had seen in 1926, was found following the identical runways among the rocks which the original pika had followed. On June 12, 1932, at Double Mountain, I found a pika living in a crevice at the base of a cliff just beneath a golden eagle's nest containing two downy eaglets. There appeared to be no conflict between the eagle and the pika and it seemed probable that the association had been one of several years standing for both the eagle's nest and the pika's den indicated that they had seen many years of service.

The pika population in Mount McKinley National Park is remarkably stable. Investigation has shown that approximately the same number of individuals are to be found in certain given rock slides year after year. A stranger might have difficulty in finding the pikas, but once their chosen habitat among the rocks is found they are easily relocated.

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