A side effect of the Olympic hangover from all that hockey and curling is a fascination with the animals of Canada. It’s not just moose and beaver that have my attention, but even more obscure species like the collared pika. They live in the west part of the Northwest Territory, throughout much of the Yukon Territory, in northern British Columbia, and in central and southern Alaska.
Pikas are lagomorphs, an order of gnawing herbivores that is closely related to rodents. Other lagomorphs include rabbits and hares, which may explain some nicknames for collared pikas: rock rabbits and whistling hares. These animals are small, weighing around one-third of a pound. Like rabbits and hares, their hind limbs are longer than their forelimbs. They have lighter fur—white or creamy as opposed to gray—around their nape and shoulders, which is where the name “collared” comes from.
There are about 30 pika species, but only two occur in North America. Besides the collared pika, there is the American pika, which is slightly bigger and lives throughout the mountains of western North America. Collared pikas are at some risk of population declines because of the very specific habitat they need to live and how climate change has affected it.
Their home is typically above tree line in boulder fields next to alpine meadows of mountainous regions. They prefer the edges of talus slopes closest to meadows and near the highest quality vegetation. Because they live in sub-alpine and alpine habitats, the growing season is short. Pikas often choose to live on southwest facing slopes where the growing season of the plants they eat is longer. Due to climate change, these areas have shorter periods of snow cover than they used to. That’s a problem because snow cover provides thermal insulation necessary for the survival of pikas and their food sources.
Collared pikas stockpile food for the winter. During the warm season, they spend their days grazing and collecting food for storage, a behavior called “haying”. They typically forage within 10 meters of the safety of the boulders in their home range, and store food in several haystacks within their territory. They are kleptoparasites, meaning that they steal food from each other.
Collared pikas are solitary and territorial. They spend a lot of time defending their territories by fighting and chasing intruders away. They also rub their cheeks on objects and vocalize to alert others of their intention to defend their territorial boundaries. Males and females who are neighbors are reasonably tolerant of one another, and they will often mate with the nearest individual of the opposite sex. Sometimes they mate with just one partner and sometimes they have multiple mates. Litters typically have two or three offspring, but as many as six have been reported. Females give birth to one or two litters each year.
Collared pikas’ sleeping and shelter areas are in different locations than their food caches. They have no specific areas for curling or hockey, but they are still most definitely Canadian.