I will readily admit that when I’m in the mountains above tree line that I’m always on the lookout for marmots. They are among my favorites. More recently, though, I’ve had a growing fondness for pika. These small mammals are in a family related to rabbits, not rodents. And they’re adorable – they have pudgy, egg-shaped bodies only 6-7 inches long, they have short, rounded ears, and no visible tail.
Pika are especially adorable when scampering back to their underground hideouts with bunches of grasses and flowers sticking out from either side of their mouths. In this sense they are farmers, harvesting plant material to cache for the winter because they do not hibernate. Their stockpiles are appropriately called haystacks. But what’s even more interesting about these stores is that some of the vegetation is toxic. Somehow they know this and will store these materials at the bottom of the pile. Not only does this help preserve other plants, but the toxins break down over time and can be eaten safely late in the winter.
In the high county pika are found in open rocky meadows or boulder fields. They chirp or squeak, alerting us to their presence (or more likely, alerting other pika to our presence). But finding them isn’t always that easy because their fur color perfectly matches that of the boulders. You have to stop for moment to watch for movement. If you do, your patience will be rewarded.