By Dawn Wilson
This week’s featured animal is one of my favorite in the Rocky Mountains, the American pika.
Whether you say pika with a long i sound or as pee-ka (both are considered correct according to Merriam-Webster), this small mammal of the tundra is an adorable and popular animal. Although I have observed these alpine animals below tree line at about 10,000 feet, they are more abundant above 11,500 feet, including in Rocky Mountain National Park.
1. Although often misidentified as a mouse, the American pika is the smallest member of the rabbit family. Look closely at their front teeth, large round ears and big back feet and you will understand why.
2. American pikas do not hibernate. Instead, they collect plants, grasses, leaves and flowers all summer, dry them in “hay piles” under large rocks, and then feed on these caches of food throughout the difficult winter of their high-elevation habitat.
3. The American pika is also called mouse hare, rock rabbit, conys and whistling hare for their high-pitched “meep” alarm call.
4. By late summer, as pressure builds to create a substantial hay pile to sustain them through the winter, a pika may have made as many as 14,000 trips into a nearby meadow to gather the plants for the pile.
5. American pikas are extremely susceptible to heat, with the potential for dying if exposed to temperatures of 77 degrees or higher for 30 minutes or more. For this reason, pikas are an indicator species for climate change.
Dawn Wilson is a professional and award-winning nature photographer who lives in Estes Park year-round. You can see more of her work, join one of her Rocky tours and purchase prints at DawnWilsonPhotography.com.