High livers

While hiking down a 12,000 foot pass in the Sierras last week, we heard a series of high-pitched chirps.

It's a pretty steep trail, down what looks like a big rock slide, with numerous boulder fields along the way.

It’s a pretty steep trail, down what looks like a big rock slide, with numerous boulder fields along the way.

Not bird-like, not exactly squirrel-like, they were coming from this little guy, who apparently was proudly announcing both our presence and his territory.

American Pika, Ochotona princeps

Pikas are also known as “whistling hares” for their high-pitched alarm calls.  They are about the size of a ground squirrel, but with the body type and facial features of a rabbit minus the long ears, which are instead large and round.  They also lack the long hind legs of their rabbit cousins.

This one must have been the sentry on duty, alerting others living in this rockpile of potential threats.

This one must have been the sentry on duty, alerting others living in this rockpile of potential threats.  At this point, I was really missing my SLR camera and the long telephoto lens.

Pika are found in montane areas in western North America, Europe, and Asia; they occupy boulder fields and rock slides near grassy meadows and other alpine vegetation, typically at altitudes greater than 8000 feet and ranging above the tree line.

Here the valley below the pass is so high (more than 11,000 feet), there is just a narrow band of rocky outcrop between meadow and tree line.

The typical distribution of plant life at 11,000 + feet.  Pika would occupy the rocky outcrops near and above the treeline here.

Unlike other “high livers” that manage to exist year-round at high altitude by hibernating to escape the harsh winter, Pika remain active beneath the snow pack, moving around the rock crevices to harvest their stored food supplies.  They spend their summers producing a couple of litters of offspring and “making hay” — literally, collecting forage, spreading it out on the rocks to dry, and then bundling it up for storage in a rock crevice.  Pika selectively harvest their forage at its peak nutritional value, so their hay piles reflect the chronology of plant development in the area.

Pikas, the miniature farmers of the rocky High Sierra.

American Pika, Ochotona princeps.  By Justin Johnsen. (Detail of own work posted to Flickr as Pika sentry) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

American Pika, Ochotona princeps. By Justin Johnsen. (Detail of own work posted to Flickr as Pika sentry) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

4 thoughts on “High livers

  1. Pingback: The problems with getting high… | Back Yard Biology

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