The pika (Ochotona princeps
) belongs to the order Lagomorpha, which includes rabbits and hares. Pikas are small, furry mammals with roundish bodies, short legs, short round ears, and no visible tail. Each foot has five digits and hairy soles that are good for gripping sheer rock. A pika looks more like a guinea pig than a rabbit, averaging about eight inches in length and weighing four to seven ounces. Pikas are often called cony, whistling hares, or rock rabbits.
Habitat: Living in the maze of talus slopes and rock fields throughout Colorado mountains above 8,500 feet, a pika is difficult to spot.
Diet: During the short high-country summer, pikas spend most of their time gathering vegetation to endure the long, frigid alpine winters. Using their chisel-like teeth, pika cut vegetation from nearby grassy meadows. Leaves and stems of grasses, forbs, and shrubs constitute 78-87% of the pika diet. Clovers, sedges, conifer needles, and woody bark are also eaten. As the vegetation is collected, it is spread on the rocks to cure in the sun, then stacked into hay piles and stored under the rocks. These stashes may easily cover an area of a hundred square meters and can reach up to two feet high. As much as 4 bushels of vegetation have been found in a single cache. The volume of a hay pile is perhaps that of a bathtub, and easily 30 species of plants may be found in one hay pile.
Pikas may also eat some of their own droppings, enabling them to get the most nutrients out of the vegetation they eat.
Behavior: When not foraging, the pika may be found sitting on a rock, basking in the sunshine, and keeping a keen eye out for predators such as coyotes, weasels. martens, and hawks.
More often heard than seen, these tiny creatures emit a loud, sharp squeak that can be hard to locate, much like when a ventriloquist "throws" his/her voice. When danger is near, a pika will whistle to other pikas in the colony, then disappear to the safety of nearby rocks.
Most activity occurs during the day, with peaks in the morning and late afternoon to early evening. Pikas do not hibernate, but their activity decreases in late fall and winter, and the animals spend large portions of time in dens.
When snow covers the talus, they dig snow tunnels to the surface to forage. The pike lives singly in its own territory, with males and females having some overlap in their adjacent territories.
Pikas are one of the most territorial mammals, frequently involved in chases and short fights. Urine, feces, and cheek glands are all used in scent-marking their territories.
Reproduction: Pikas breed in early spring, producing two litters, of which only one litter survives. Following a 30-day gestation period, the mother pika gives birth to an average litter of three young which are born blind and hairless. Young pika grow quickly (fully mature in six weeks) and establish their own territory by their first winter. Pika live up to seven years. The pika is a protected non-game mammal in Colorado.