Hiking this summer near large rockslides and talus slopes in the Cascades, listen for a loud and nasal “enk...enk...enk.” It’s the American pika, a super cute mammal a little smaller than a guinea pig. Though in the same order as rabbits, they bear no resemblance to their long-eared cousins, Both are herbivores and do not hibernate, even though most pikas occupy terrain covered with deep snow for upwards of eight months each winter, making food gathering impossible. Their strategy to survive many months entombed under deep snow? These industrious animals spend months harvesting green vegetation from late summer into fall, hauling it back to dry recesses in the rocks. Each mouthful is dumped into piles where it cures. Through the winter months, pikas dine away on their “haypiles” under the deep snowpack.
How to spot one: You’ll likely hear the pikas bleating call before you see one. Now try to find the source of this call! Search the talus slopes and, by and by, you may spot this critter peering at you warily from atop a boulder. Note it has rounded ears and has no apparent tail, unlike other mammals that share its habitat like squirrels and chipmunks.
Where to look: In rockslides from middle elevations to treeline in the Cascades. Close to Yakima, a great area is on the talus slopes on upper Bethel Ridge Road or along the hiking and cross country ski track on the west side of Leech Lake at White Pass.
Chow time: Grasses and sedges are relished by pikas. Many other types of plants are taken such as lupine, goldenrod, paintbrush, asters, penstemon, knotweed, saxifrage, and blueberry. In other words, if it is green, leafy, and growing in the mountains, the pika is likely to eat it.
Home life: Their litter of three or four young is born from June through August after a gestation period of about 30 days. The young are nursed for only about 12 days, at which time they begin to nibble on green vegetation. They grow quickly and are two-thirds grown at one month of age. They may have two litters each summer.
Pikas spend a lot of their time evading predators of which they have many. Avian threats include the golden eagle and red-tailed hawk. Mammals, especially weasels, also seek them out. Perhaps the most dangerous is the least weasel because this small and ferocious beast is slimmer than the pika and able to follow it through its maze of rock tunnels. Larger members of the weasel clan such as the pine marten and wolverine also take pikas.
Biologists believe pikas originated in the mountains of east Asia where there are still many species. One apparently crossed into North America millions of years ago and colonized many of the mountain ranges of the West.
Pikas are being intensively studied by biologists, as many populations seem to be in decline. In fact, on some mountain ranges in the Great Basin they have disappeared entirely. Warmer summer temperatures in these and other mountains may not be tolerated by this cold-adapted species. A drier climate may be causing a loss of mountain vegetation may be another culprit.
• Wildlife Moment, focusing on native wildlife, typically runs in Outdoors on the first Thursday of the month, with the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Aububon Society.