Alberta, Canada
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American Pika
Ochotona princeps
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General Description

By Gustave J. Yaki

The Pikas (pronounced as pie'ka), sometimes called Rock Rabbits or Conies, are allied to the rabbits but differs in lacking the typical hare-shaped body and tail, running instead of hopping, and possessing short ears and small hind feet.

Pikas also occur in Japan and central Asia. It is thought that they crossed to this continent via the Bering land bridge. The New World population is now recognized as a separate species. They are now widely distributed in discontinuous populations, from Alaska to New Mexico, in the western mountain ranges of North America.

In Canada, there are several isolated groups. The population that includes Alaska, Yukon, the Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories and the St. Elias Mountains of northeastern B.C. are separated by more than 640 km (400 mi) from the nearest ones to the south, and are often recognized as a distinct species, the Collared Pika. There are eight separated group in southern B.C. In Alberta, the populations of the eastern slopes are considered to be a separate subspecies from these occupying the main ranges of the Rocky Mountains.

Pikas are small, tailless creatures, rather guinea pig-like in appearance and posture. They have short, rounded, well-furred, dusky ears, edged with white. Their dense, fine fur resembles that of rabbits. The back is generally grey, with some rust-colouration about the head and shoulders. The undersides are a paler grey. Average measurements of adult males are: total length 178 mm (7 in); weight 140 gr (5 oz). Females are only slightly smaller.

In Alberta, Pikas usually live amongst the talus slopes and landslide boulders of the Rocky Mountains, usually above the treeline, to the limit of vegetation. They start their day early in the morning, spending much of it hunched up, sunning on a favourite look-out rock. When frightened, they utter a ventriloquial warning bleat and drop below to scuttle amongst the rocks. After the perceived danger has passed, the Pika reappears at the surface, uttering more calls, jerking its head up, and as it does so, opening its mouth. Because of the nature of the sound, which seems to come from several directions -- and their camouflaged coat -- the animal can be surprisingly difficult to locate. Sometimes it is right in front of you, having moved in for a better view.

Pikas are vegetarians, in summer eating the plants that grow amongst the boulders. In winter, active under a blanket of deep snow, they depend on the hay-piles they created during the previous growing season. This meant that they had to cut, collect, cure and store vegetation. Usually, there in not enough plantlife within the security of their boulder field, requiring them to venture into the nearby alpine meadows. There they cut and collect a mouthful of stems, then dash back to the safety of the rocks. There they spread the collected grasses, sedges and wildflowers, to let them completely dry. If it should rain, they quickly gather and tuck them under the boulders, bringing them back out to complete the task after the rain has ceased. When thoroughly dry, they create little hay-stacks, caching them in a dry, accessible site.

After a gestation period of 30 days, a litter of three to four young are born, between May and September. Clothed in dense fur, they are blind, active and vocal. Their adult coat appears at about eight days and their eyes open at ten days. Sampling vegetation begins when weaning starts at ten days of age. Playful, dashing about their nest, the young are about two-thirds adult-size at one month of age. The are sexually mature the next spring.

Calgary sightings: One has to go west to the mountains to see this species. They can be found at such sites as Highwood Pass, Picklejar Lakes and Ptarmigan Cirque where they were still being observed on their snowy boulder field on 24 Nov. 2002.

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Where to find American Pikas in Alberta   

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