These tiny little mammals make their homes in the rocky crevices of the tundra, living at elevations of 11,000 feet or more. They are sometimes known as a cony or a rock rabbit. Although they look like a rodent, they are more closely related to rabbits and hares, belonging to the scientific order Lagamorpha. Cute, cuddly-looking characters, these charismatic inhabitants of the western mountain landscape are small, usually between 6-8 inches and weighing around 4-6 ounces. Uniquely adapted to a cold climate, their small, rotund body has no visible tail and compact, rounded ears. Dense, peppery brown fur covers not only their body but paws as well, providing traction on slippery slopes and "warm mittens" during winter storms.
Pikas do not hibernate so must spent the short tundra summer storing food for the long winter ahead. Their herbivore diet consists of sedges, wildflowers and grasses. They store their winter food under rock piles and slides in piles known as "haystacks." Generally solitary animals, one pika must gather enough food to fill a bathtub in order to survive the winter. They jealously guard their stash and can be heard issuing a sharp, high-pitch chirp to warn would-be thieves away from their hard-earned pantry. Pikas are active in the winter beneath the snow, subsisting on these stored provisions.
Late March or April is breeding season for pikas. The gestation period is approximately thirty days and two to four young are born. Females raise the young for about four weeks and then the babies leave their mothers, although they will not be mature for another two months. Each young pika must gather and store enough food in its first season to feed itself during the coming winter. Longevity is between four and seven years.
Did You Know?
Rocky Mountain National Park licensed the nation’s first female nature guides in 1917. Sisters Ester and Elizabeth Burnell learned the naturalist trade from advocate and author Enos Mills.