1994 Yukon Nuggets
Yukon Collared Pika
I once owned a hamster. Well, actually it was my kids’ hamster. A family pet. He lived to the ripe old age of five years - a long time, I am told, for a hamster. The little guy had his share of adventures, like the time he escaped, and was found two days later walking down the sidewalk near our house.
There is no doubt he was happy to come home - being a house hamster. I thought of that little rodent when I was doing some research about the Yukon pika. They look alike and are about the same size. About the size of a tennis ball, and cute. But the similarity ends there. The Yukon Collared Pika is one tough animal. Truly a special breed.
These tiny creatures live on isolated islands of rock rising out of the glaciers in the St. Elias Mountains. Their favourite foods – like willows and grasses -- are scarce, so they have adapted to life on the edge. They not only eat plants, but also dead birds.
Strange as it may seem, storms blow migrating songbirds onto the icefield glaciers, where they often die. The little pikas scurry out from the rocks and onto the glaciers to collect the dead birds, just as they collect alpine plants for drying. They are the only North American pikas known to eat meat.
The amazing creatures pile the dead birds like cordwood in their haystacks. Pikas build "haystacks" of dried grass in preparation for the winter. These so-called haystacks can be quite large. Building haystacks is essential to pika survival because they don’t hibernate and therefore need food for winter.
Since most rocky outcrops can support only one pair, pika juveniles are kicked out of the family home. Then, amazingly, the little creatures set off across the glacier to find another high mountain meadow and rocky outcrop.
It is hard to imagine an animal living in a more extreme environment. Food includes leaves of mountain avens, lupines, dwarf huckleberry, kinnikinnik, and grass. So if you are ever lucky enough to travel across the Kluane icefields, look and listen for the chattering call of the pika – a welcome sound in the often quiet landscape - the sound of an incredibly adapted Yukon wild creature.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.