Pika: A small, haystack building. rabbit

A Pika (also known as a Cony) could be mistaken for a large mouse or a baby rabbit. Actually it is a rabbit – a small short-eared one – a rock rabbit. These are fascinating little “guys”. They live on talus slopes, rocky banks, or steep boulder strewn hillsides at elevations between 8,000 to 13,500 feet. This very vocal rodent makes small squeaky noises, or noises that sound like a bleat of a goat, as they scurry over their rocky habitat.

The Pika is a small (6 3/8”) mammal that has dug its den deep inside the rocks. It mates in early spring and has 2 to 6 offspring per litter and usually has two litters a year. It doesn’t hibernate. Therefore, the gathering of a supply of winter food is necessary. The greenery in close proximity to the den is either eaten on the spot or gathered and spread on the rocks to dry. Like a farmer, the dried vegetation is gathered into the den and piled in little haystacks. These haystacks may have as much as a bushel of grasses, mosses, herbs, etc. stored in them.

Much time is spent sunning on a favorite rock which also serves as a lookout for their main predator – the Short-tailed Weasel (Ermine). The weasel’s slender body allows it to follow into the Pika’s tunnels. It has been observed that Pikas will take turns leading a weasel on a chase. When one starts to tire, another will cross between chaser and fleer. This is done until the predator decides to hunt for easier prey.

These little rock rabbits are extremely cute and lovable. We have seen them in the Colorado Rockies, Yellowstone Park, Central Idaho, Craters of the Moon, and Alaska to name a few sites. On a June trip to Denali Park, my wife and I had driven into the park as far as vehicles are permitted. We started hiking and I proposed to “go this way, we might see a Pika”. Within 15 yards on the trail – sure enough, they were all around us – how exciting!

Wherever there are high elevation talus slopes with vegetation close by, you have a good chance to find them. Just look very carefully and listen – perhaps you’ll get lucky.

A Pika Amid the lichen covered rocks

Amid the lichen covered rocks

Bitterroot and an Indian Legend

Not many flowers have a full mountain range and a big beautiful valley named for them. But, this is a special flower. It is the Bitterroot. It is also Montana’s state flower. There is an Indian legend about how it came to be. Once upon a time an Indian mother was crying because her children were starving. The sun, feeling sorry for her, shone on her tears and changed them into beautiful purplish/pink flowers. This flower had great utility, as well as beauty. Its big, starchy root could be eaten, and the mother’s children no longer needed to go hungry. The Lemhi Shoshone tribe also believed that the small, red core, in the upper taproot, had special powers – notably to be able to stop bear attacks.

As the name suggests, the Bitterroot’s root is bitter. But, the bitterness disappears when cooked. The starch can be dried and preserved for months. Indians mixed it with either berries or meat or both – thus enhancing all the ingredients in the mix and making a nourishing food that could be stored for long periods. They also mixed it with the inner bark of Ponderosa Pine. Large scars still remain on some of these trees. Bitterroot was a staple food for many western Indian tribes. It was also used for trade with other Indians.

This plant grows in low, mountainous, sagebrush regions. It is a perennial that grows close to the ground to escape the harmful effects of wind. It has a composite inflorescence. (This means many individual, petal-like flowers around a flattened, broad receptacle.) The effect makes it look like a single flower. The leaves, which rodents love, tend to wilt and die before the plant blooms. Therefore, it appears as a leafless flower.

Meriwether Lewis was not a botanist, but he was to collect specimens of any new plants that he found. His first experience with this plant was when they first crossed the continental divide. They frightened some Shoshone Indians, who ran away leaving some baskets of dried Bitterroots. Lewis found the whole plant in Montana on the return trip. The plant was named for him.

We have observed this plant on the high mountain trail of the National Bison Range and at Craters of the Moon. It is one of Carolyn’s favorite flowers.

bitterroot flower

Lewisia rediviva