This particular adorable little critter, pictured on the left, lives on the shore of Lake Virginia, and is not at all camera shy. He or she is about five weeks old (in this photo) and is about the size of a tennis ball with some appendages.
The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a not-too-distant cousin to the rabbit. With a little imagination you could almost call them “proto-rabbits,” with their oversized ears and bunny nose.
The life of a pika is a simple one. They are born blind and smaller than a golf ball, but reach full size in as little as three months. Adolescence comes in about a year, after which they mate twice each year, timing the first litter so that it emerges when the snow melts, then getting a second litter in before the snow returns.
Although they can live as long as seven years, three years is about average in the wild. They have lots of dangerous neighbors; weasels, ermines, and martens are their greatest threats. (If you’ve ever seen a marten dart across a rock pile, and a pika wobble across a flat rock, you know that the poor pika rarely has a chance.)
Their only real defense mechanism is a loud whistle, which alarms everyone in the area, and a quick retreat to a space within the talus too small for their attacker to enter.
They eat the few plants found in the higher elevation, and cache (called “haying”) all summer so they have a food supply during the long months when nothing grows. They are also surprisingly territorial (although you can walk through one of these territories with several steps). They do not live in social groups. Once young males reach adolescence they must venture out and find their own territory, and defend it.
Like most animals, they crave salt, especially the kind they may find in the sweat soaked straps of your backpack. They aren’t good climbers, however, so getting the pack off the ground and hanging from a branch will usually do the trick.
When you see your first pika of the trip it’s a good omen—it means you have ascended above treeline and are truly on your way.
Good hiking, Ray