Keep an eye out for the North American pika
Pronounced ‘PEE-ka’ in imitation of its call, this little rock rabbit exists in many East Kootenay locations – but you just may hear its high-pitched nasal ‘eeeek’ before you see it. About seven to eight inches long, the wee gray beastie with round ears and no tail will sit very still for long periods, almost invisible among the gray rocks, until it suddenly moves.
The North American pika (Ochotona princeps) is quite common in the Canadian Rockies and in some slopes at lower elevations, but it is dwindling rapidly in the American Rockies. Often mistakenly described as rodents, pikas are lagomorphs, similar to hares and rabbits. They live in loose colonies, each with its own home range and storage piles. They are active in daytime and do not hibernate.
Pikas venture out into the nearby vegetation to gather grass, sedges, lichens and many kinds of wildflowers. Making hay while the sun shines in late summer and fall (their ‘haying season’) they make many journeys stashing this green feed in bundles beneath overhanging rocks and in their tunnels. They vigorously defend their piles of winter feed.
Enemies of pikas include hawks, coyotes and eagles,but the most dangerous are weasels, which are able to enter the pika runs. Some pika colonies have been wiped out by weasels. More recently, though, their new enemy is climate change. Pikas are not tolerant of the warming temperatures in their western mountain homes, and have disappeared from more than a third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Nevada. They can overheat and die if exposed to temperatures over 25 degrees C for extended periods, which is why they spend much of their summer deep in rock piles, or at higher altitudes where food is less plentiful.
You will know where there has been pika activity by the presence of white stains on pika sentry perch rocks, usually under larger overhanging boulders. The urine left on these rocks causes this distinctive white deposit. Another interesting feature is the growth of a bright orange Sunburst lichen (Xanthoria), which gets its nitrogen from the urine. Watch for these white and orange markings on pika sentry perches.
Within the Kimberley Nature Park there have been pika sightings and signs in two locations, both in Horse Barn Valley. In September this year, a search of the rocky slope on the east side of the main Tora Bora trail showed 16 locations where fresh green hay piles have been made. Starting at the south end of the rocky bluff area and working gradually north, past where climbers gather, along the bottom of the rocky slope all the way up to Pika Hollow, there are obvious stores of grass, leaves and even wild raspberry twigs pulled under the rocks. Some consist of a small amount of grass, while others are large deposits. More numerous than expected, these stashes confirm that we have a colony of pika in Tora Bora.
The Talus Trail rock slide location is a conundrum. It seems like an obvious pika colony home, but in more than 25 years of observations I have never seen or heard a pika there. I’ve seen some distinct white-stained sentry perches, but who knows if they indicate recent activity or signs left by a pika 50 years ago?
There are also the remains of four or five ancient, dried-out food stashes along the slide – but nothing showed current activity until 2018, when a large, green hay stash was found at the west end, close to where the trail emerges from the trees. Unfortunately, this stash was not replenished in 2019 or in 2020.
Our little furry friends may be found in rock tunnels elsewhere in the Nature Park, but we don’t know where. September and October are the months to observe them. Please watch and listen for these furry friends while out exploring the park. I would appreciate a note from anyone who notices a pika, or pika haying and storing activity, before the snow flies. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 250-427-5048.
Photos and text by Struan Robertson