Cony, Hay-maker, Mouse-hare, Piping hare, Rock rabbit, Rocky Mountain pika, Southern pika, Whistling hare, Little Chief hare
The American pika is a small rabbit that lives in alpine regions of the south-west of Canada and in the west of the U.S. It is a relatively smaller and cuter member of the lagomorph family of rabbits and hares. American pikas are hardworking herbivores that gather flowers and plants to store for winter. The polar bear has for years been the global warming movement’s symbol. But the American pika today has good reason to compete for this unwanted honor with the polar bear. These rabbits are suffering as a result of global warming bringing higher temperatures to their high, cool, moist mountain ecosystems. Higher temperatures can make pikas overheat, and they live so high up that there is nowhere else for them to go.
The American pika lives in south-west Canada and the western U.S. These cute rabbits can also be seen in Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, California and Montana. They inhabit alpine terrain on mountains above the tree line. They are found on rock faces, cliffs and talus near mountain meadows, talus being a rocky area on cliff sides, slopes or hillsides.
Habits and lifestyle
American pikas are adapted to very inhospitable environments, living where most other mammals avoid going - the treeless slopes on mountains: a very rocky, cold and treacherous habitat for the tiny pika. These animals help protect themselves through their life in colonies. They live close to other pikas and they will alert the group about predators by giving a warning call. Although this species lives in colonies, they are extremely territorial over the den and surrounding area. An individual will make territorial calls to define its boundaries with its neighbor. A den is made among rocks. A pika is active during the daytime and does not hibernate in winter, being active throughout the year. In winter it tends to spend most of its time inside the den. A pika eats stored grasses and ventures out to forage if the weather permits. You will often hear a pika before you can see it, as they call and sing to define or protect their territory, warn others of danger and attract mates. Their call sounds like a bleating lamb, but squeakier and more high-pitched.
Diet and nutrition
American pikas are monogamous (one male mates with one female), and an adult from a neighboring territory is sought as a mate. When there is more than one possible mate available, females may make a choice. American pikas start to breed from early to mid-spring. Two litters of 2-6 young are produced each year, after a gestation of 30 days. However, often only one litter survives as long as the weaning stage. Births usually start in May, with a peak in June, but at lower elevations may be as early as March. At birth the young are entirely dependent on their mother. During the period of nursing, the mother spends a lot of time away from her nest, returning every two hours or so to nurse her infants. After about a month the young are weaned, and they reach adult size in 3 months. After a year they are able to breed.
early to mid-spring
The major threat to American pikas is global climate change, this species being in line to become the first North American mammal to be a victim of this threat. A study carried out from 1994 to 1999 found that 7 out of 25 American pika populations that were monitored had become extinct, partly due to climate change. This species is particularly vulnerable to this danger, as its habitat is the cool, relatively moist alpine climate. As temperatures rise, animals living in the mountains may move higher to find suitable habitat but this option is not open to the American pika, as it already lives so high up. As it has adapted to living in mountainous areas that are not often above freezing temperatures, it can die even after only a few hours of exposure to temperatures like 78 degrees F.
There are no estimates of population numbers for American pika. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC); however, its numbers today are decreasing.
Fun facts for kids
- Pikas are thought to have evolved from an animal from Siberia that crossed to North America over the land bridge that used to exist between Asia and Alaska.
- Aside from rushing to and fro from their territory seeking food, American pikas spend much of their time sitting still, observing their surroundings and watching out for predators such as weasels, coyotes, martens and stoats.
- American pikas are well-prepared animals. To prepare for winter, when there are not so many grasses and flowers to be found in the mountains, pikas save food during the summer. They collect a pile of grasses and wildflowers and spread them out to dry in the sun so they will not get moldy, then store them in their den until winter.
- The America pika has two very different strategies for foraging: immediately eating the food it finds, and haying - the collecting and storing of food in piles in crevices or on rocks. This behavior modifies its habitat us thus has earned this animal the label of ‘ecosystem engineer’.
- A pika will make a shrill call of warning and dive into its burrow when threatened by predators and so is known as the ‘whistling hare’.
- The other form of communication for American pikas is scent-marking with cheek glands. Apocrine sweat glands produce the cheek markings which are used to demarcate territories and attract potential mates. Both males and females spread them by rubbing their cheeks on rocks.