by Terry Terrell
Pikas (Ochotona princeps), sometimes called coneys or rock rabbits, are one of the most popular tundra animals among Rocky Mountain National Park visitors. Pikas are members of the order Lagomorpha and are more closely related to rabbits than the rodent ground squirrels they may resemble to the casual observer. Their ears are short, they have hair on the soles of their feet, and their back legs are barely longer than their front legs, unlike rabbits and hares. An adult weighs about six ounces and is about six to eight inches long. They mate about the time the snow starts to melt and have two to four babies. The young are weaned in three to four weeks and stay with their mothers for about another four weeks until they have reached adult size. Other than for breeding or raising a family, they maintain individual territories, but territories can overlap to some extent. They use a wide range of calls and scent marking to delineate and defend their territories. They are active during the day, especially in the morning, but they can be heard calling at night. They are very vocal creatures.
Pikas do not hibernate in the winter. Instead they remain active, sometimes in the rocky shelters or burrows they use in the summer, sometimes in the extensive burrows they can create in the snow, and when conditions are relatively mild, they search windswept areas of tundra for additional food. They can also use haystacks they have accumulated over the summer. Individual haystacks can be as large as a bathtub. About 80 to 90% the material pikas collect is forbes (non-woody plants) and shrubs. Occasionally pikas will eat lichens, and some near treeline may collect conifer bark and needles. Most of the time they prefer sedges, alpine avens, and clover.
Pikas must truly "make hay while the sun shines" - they typically have about three months while plants are growing to collect and cure them. Pikas scamper across the tundra collecting plants and keeping a sharp eye out for eagles, weasels, coyotes, and martens that might like to collect them for supper. Because pikas will forage throughout the winter, haystacks are a form of insurance against unusually long or harsh winters.