The Hardest Working Mammal In Snow Biz

Jay Ryser

Lakewood, United States

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Ba dapa DA dada da
Ba dapa DADA da da da
Ba dapa DA dada da
BA BA BA dapa
BA BA BA dapa
DA!!

Sorry, got a little carried away there.

Last weekend when I was up above 14,000ft, there was a brutal wind. Facing into the wind, I couldn’t breath – I had to put on a windproof balaclava and cover my nose and mouth to catch my breath (and even then, at 14,000ft, it was no easy task). Despite being dressed in full-on winter gear, I was still cold. I could lean forward into the wind and not have to worry about falling forward with the wind. The wind was literally shoving me around. And to make things even more fun, a big lens on a tripod makes an excellent sail – I had to keep a firm grip on the tripod to prevent my kit from being dashed on the rocks.

I mention the brutality of the wind, because as difficult time as I was having, Larry the Pika had it worse.

I wasn’t expecting to see Larry that day – I figured the wind would have been too much for a little 6-ounce guy like him. But to my surprise, Larry was out and about. I initially spotted him on a little sheltered rock outcropping, avoiding most of the wind but catching some warm sun. That was only a brief respite; he quickly returned to the task of gathering food.

The recent rain in Denver was snow in the high country, no doubt reinforcing to him that Winter isn’t that far away, and he needs to gather as much food as he can.

The high winds meant that Larry had to change his strategy a bit, too. In some of the stronger gusts, he could easily get blasted off the summit – literally. Instead of going to the rich plant growth on the north side of the talus field (and in the area most exposed to the wind), he went to the South and kept low to the ground, running around and under the rocks instead of on top of them. And his trips out were very brief compared to his usual excursions.

It also occurred to me that Larry (and all the other pikas) don’t have the luxury of taking the day off or napping instead of working. Their lives depend upon their ability to gather enough food for the winter. If they take the day off, it puts them at risk. Like it or not, comfortable or not, he’s got to go out and work. Earning a living takes on a whole new level of seriousness.

Compared to pikas, marmots have it easy (no offense, Krys); all they have to do is eat and fatten up for the winter hibernation. Well, that’s not all they have to do. They can nap, lay on sun-warmed rocks, and play-fight, too. There’s some playtime in their schedule.

Standard Pika Boilerplate
Unlike their alpine cousins, the marmots (who hibernate away the winter months), pikas are awake and active all winter long – and at their altitude in the alpine zone, winter can be a long time. To survive their winters, pikas have to gather food to have enough to eat.

They start by running out into the talus field to gather mouthfuls of grass, plants, flowers, and thistles. They then pile all the plant matter into tiny little hay bales to dry in the sun. Once it’s dried, they carry the little hay bales into their burrows where they store it and use it for food, bedding, and insulation.

If they don’t gather enough food, they don’t survive the winter. Despite weighing only about 6 ounces themselves, pikas must gather in excess of 50 pounds of plant matter for the coming winter. That’s a LOT of plant matter for a little critter to gather.

In pika communities, it’s not uncommon for pikas to try to make off with a neighbors hay bale. When caught, this can lead to a noisy little dispute between the pikas.

When they spot a predator or potential danger (or if you get too close to their little hay bales), they emit a surprisingly loud EEENK. They also keep themselves in harm’s way to alert their neighbors. It’s more common to hear pikas than see them.

Pikas, and marmots to a lesser extent, are considered at risk species due to climate change and global warming. They live on what is essentially a cold island. They are unable to migrate to different locations, as doing so would require them to cross long stretches of excessively hot ground. Their only alternative is to climb higher and higher up the mountain, and there’s only so much mountain to climb. Most pikas spend their entire lives in a half-mile radius. It’s estimated that pikas cannot survive in temps higher than 75F for more than a few hours.

Pika (Ochotona princeps)
Mt Evans Wilderness Area, CO
Sony a700
Sigma 300mm f/2.8+1.4TC
Jobu gimbal, Giottos tripod

ISO200, 1/500sec, f/4.5

Artwork Comments

  • Finbarr Reilly
  • Jay Ryser
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  • Robert Elliott
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  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
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  • John Hooton
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  • Krys Bailey
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  • Steve Bullock
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  • Anne Smyth
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