Photographing Pikas: A Life Above the Clouds

Photo of a pika standing up and grabbing leaves from a large plant. An American pika chooses which leaves look the tastiest in his subalpine home. In very cold areas, pika live in the subalpine, where plants are very abundant and much larger than up high. © Deidre Rosenberg
An American pika chooses which leaves look the tastiest in his subalpine home. In very cold areas, pika live in the subalpine, where plants are very abundant and much larger than up high. © Deidre Rosenberg

By Deirdre Rosenberg

There are many wondrous and surreal ecosystems on this planet: landscapes that take your breath away and make you feel small in the best kind of way, areas that we feel called to. For me, it’s all about the alpine environment. As a small child, I was immersed in the land that exists above the clouds and that’s where my heart and soul still reside. My fascination and passion for these harsh places has informed much of my life and career. Today, I am excited to share some information, a few photos, and some of my concerns about one of my very favorite alpine residents: the American pika.

An adult pika gathers grasses for his haystack in the early morning. © Deidre Rosenberg
An adult pika gathers grasses for his haystack in the early morning. © Deidre Rosenberg

An indicator species

I have been working with these tiny friends for many years and, a few years ago, made them a major focus of my photography. Pika are incredible ambassadors for the alpine world and show what a fragile ecosystem it truly is. Known as an indicator species for climate change, pika represent species that don’t have many options when it comes to places they can call home. They struggle to survive when temperatures exceed 75o F and they already reside in such high elevations that they can’t get higher.

When you factor in the massive influx of folks getting outside and urban sprawl pushing into the mountains deeper and deeper, it’s easy to see that life for the American pika is changing. They’ve already disappeared from parts of their historic range.

In my work over the past several years, I have documented a number of changes in pika behavior and habitation. From sleeping more and more during the day, to moving into subalpine talus fields, pika are doing what they can to continue thriving in the harshest of ecosystems.

As pika work, they often pause to munch on a leaf or two. It’s important that they keep their energy up and some yummy snacks are just the thing! © Deidre Rosenberg
As pika work, they often pause to munch on a leaf or two. It’s important that they keep their energy up and some yummy snacks are just the thing! © Deidre Rosenberg

Haypiles not hibernation

Many are surprised to learn that pikas do not hibernate! Instead, they gather, dry, and stash away humongous (relative to their size) haypiles of grasses and plants to keep themselves thriving during the freezing, snowy months. Which are the majority of months in the mountains.

So, summer is a busy time in the life of pika. And it’s when most people get to see them, as they work diligently to stash as much food as possible from about June to September.

A baby pika has a mid-morning snooze in her talus home. Baby pika sleep often, as they’re growing rapidly and learning everything they need to know to survive the cold months. © Deidre Rosenberg

These haystacks of dried vegetation can be seen tucked between rocks in talus fields, poking out from large trail markers, and scattered across the steepest scree slopes. They are often south facing, in order to soak up large amounts of sunshine. Pika like to work smarter, as they already work harder than most! And seeing those southern-facing haypiles is a very cool example of that.

During the gathering months, pika also have babies! They typically have two to six and many pika give birth to two litters, one in the late spring and one in the deep summer. Baby pika are completely dependent on mama pika until they’re a bit over a month old and they aren’t adult-sized until about three months old. Just in time for the snow and cold!

Photo of a pika standing on a rock with its mouth open. An American pika bellows out on a warm summer day. These calls can be heard from as far as two thousand feet below! © Deidre Rosenberg
An American pika bellows out on a warm summer day. These calls can be heard from as far as two thousand feet below! © Deidre Rosenberg

Call of the wild … pika

In the winter, if you manage to get to a pika ecosystem, it’s much easier to hear these friends calling out, than it is to see them. They call out frequently, but only venture out of their winter homes every so often. And, when they do, it’s a fast dash! They might be well suited for freezing cold, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t rather be cozy.

Winter is not easy for the pika and they are quite clearly more energetic and joyous when spring begins. As climate change accelerates, the snowpack in the mountains decreases and the moisture above tree line drops. This impacts the pika in many ways, from drought killing off their food sources, to new predators accessing the alpine ecosystem for a quick meal.

Photo of a pika skull in a group of flowers. After a long winter, there are remnants from the pika that didn’t survive. While wandering a talus field, I found the scattered bones of one. This is a composition I made by bring the skull to a patch of flowers. A little memorial of a precious life. © Deidre Rosenberg
After a long winter, there are remnants from the pika that didn’t survive. While wandering a talus field, I found the scattered bones of one. This is a composition I made by bring the skull to a patch of flowers. A little memorial of a precious life. © Deidre Rosenberg

Solitary, not social

Unlike many small critters who live communally, pika are solitary most of the time. They tend to be very territorial and aggressive towards one another. In my experience, outside of the breeding season, the most social you will observe pika is when baby pika have begun emerging from their dens and hanging out in the sunshine. When this happens, mama pika is never very far off and can often be spotted napping in the sunshine nearby.

Likewise, while still babies, siblings will hang out together. This lasts for about a month and changes once they’re old enough to start taking care of themselves without mama.

A pika in his winter den, observing me as I am him. © Deidre Rosenberg
A pika in his winter den, observing me as I am him. © Deidre Rosenberg

Images for conservation

In my work with the American Pika, I have felt incredible gratitude, both for these beings and our planet. It’s amazing to plop down in a high alpine landscape, where winds are howling and it seems like surely no creature could survive, let alone thrive, only to hear the mighty (and very cute) bellow of the alpine’s most scrappy resident.

These vocalizations have become like a symphony to me. A source of both immense happiness and hope. From raspy autumn calls to the tiniest and squeakiest calls of springtime babies. It’s my dream that future generations of humans will be able to hear these calls. Because I simply cannot imagine a world where pikas don’t greet us when we enter their world.

So, I work with pika year round to collect images and data that are aimed at making folks pause and appreciate the wonder of these little beings, from their strength and resilience to their cuteness-overload factor.

A pika emerges from her winter home to pull some breakfast from a haystack that she worked so hard on during the summer. © Deidre RosenbergA pika emerges from her winter home to pull some breakfast from a haystack that she worked so hard on during the summer. © Deidre Rosenberg
A pika emerges from her winter home to pull some breakfast from a haystack that she worked so hard on during the summer. © Deidre Rosenberg

We, as humans, behave quite simply when it comes to conservation: we will stand up for and protect what we love and care about. My goal is to get more people to know about pikas. Because once they know, they’ll care. And that is a big step in the right direction for ensuring our tiny alpine friends are a part of our planet’s future, not its past.

Interested in learning more or doing something to help preserve pikas in their native habitat? If you’re in Colorado, you can join the Colorado Pika Project and help monitor pika populations in a citizen scientist research project. From anywhere, you can (symbolically) adopt a pika through the National Wildlife Federation, a fun way to get involved. And we can all do our part by following the principles of ethical photography and Leave No Trace.

headshotDeirdre Rosenberg is a wildlife photographer with a deep passion for the alpine. Her work with alpine and subalpine wildlife shines a light on how our changing climate and growing outdoor recreation impacts these beings and the ecosystems they call home. When Deirdre isn’t in the high mountains, she is working closely with red fox to shine light on their dynamic family structures and how they fit into our changing planet. Deirdre resides in the rugged San Juan Mountains with her husband and dog. See more of her work on her website, Deidre Denali Photography, and on Instagram.