When Pikas Attack!

Last weekend聽I went on a hike with the Seattle Mountaineers to a place called the Kendall Katwalk – an amazing section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that was blasted out of a tall cliff face of solid granite so the trail could continue past an area that would otherwise have been, well, let’s just say a bit of a challenge to pass. (Read that as impossible to pass without serious climbing gear.) So this week we’re going to talk about – you guessed it – something else! Throughout that hike we heard the frequent warning calls of pikas (to pronounce this, think “bikers” with a Jersey accent), and so I thought I’d spend a couple of minutes talking about these cute little guys.

They look like little rats. OK, that’s unfair. They look more like mice. But the fact is, they’re actually more closely related to rabbits, being a member of the Ochotonidae family, which is within the order of lagomorphs, which also includes the Leporidae. That’s the rabbits. So that’s it for this week’s Latin lesson.

If you’ve ever been hiking in the north and west of North America anywhere around rocky slopes of talus or scree, you’ve probably heard their cute little “eek!” warning call. But you probably didn’t notice. Or you thought it was a bird. But while you were being oblivious, these poor little rock rats, er, I mean pikas, were warning their friends that a big scary human was nearby and about to steal their haypile. Yes, they’re big into haypiles. Pikas, it seems, do not hibernate, so they have to spend the summer gathering sedges and other grasses, which they dry in their haypiles and then take into their homes for the winter. Considering that they tend to live in very cold climates which are generally inundated with snow in the winter, this process is pretty important to them. Hence the loud eeking when anyone gets near. I honestly believe they’d give up their women and children before giving up their haypiles!

When Pikas Attack, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

When Pikas Attack, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

So how far will these tiny little guys go to defend their haypiles? Well, I was sitting on a rock one morning in Yoho National Park in British Columbia photographing one of these little guys while he was doing his thing, and my friend Lee was on the next rock doing likewise. We were actually sitting pretty far away from him, having pulled out the longest lenses we owned to get the job done. All of a sudden, the guy apparently got tired of us, came out of his rock pile, and charged us! Does this look like something you want to mess with? I don’t remember being this concerned when I met my first grizzly! I mean, he must know something I don’t know to be charging like this, right?

Well, he stopped short and turned back, and we took the hint and moved on. They say when a wild animal alters its behavior because of you, you’re too close. The guy had serious work to do to survive, and we didn’t want to interfere. But I’ll tell you, the experience left me with a whole new respect for the little critters. When it comes to preparing for the inevitable wintertime of little, these guys are way ahead of some people I know.

So the next time you’re out hiking near a talus field and you hear that little “eek!” sound, stop and look around you. Somewhere up there on the top of the rock pile is a little guy watching you intently – and hoping you won’t steal his haypile. But don’t stay too long – he has plenty of work to do before winter!



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3 Responses to “When Pikas Attack!”

  1. Martine says:

    Love that story, and they are SO cute! I am starting to be jealous, however: you’re a technical smarty-pants, outstanding photographer, and not-too-shabby writer, and funny, and a cook, and accomplished outdoorsman… Too many talents for one person! Can you share, please? This is annoying. 馃槈

  2. Dan Taflin says:

    Great pictures! I’ve heard these little critters way more often than I’ve seen them. It’s impressive you got such good shots. But I have to take exception to your characterization of them as little rats. My daughter terrorized one she saw last summer by spontaneously charging it with arms open wide, yelling, “ooh, you’re CUTE!!!” She would never have done that to a rat.

    But now I know the key for a close approach – find its haypile.