Pika Past Present and Future

Image – Pika and Flowers by Vivienne Edwards; for more information, visit

Featured in Animal Literary Magazine, April 2018.

There are not many songs sung in the Alpine territory. When I hike above the treeline in Colorado it is either quiet enough to hear my own ears ringing or, more often, the wind is ululating wild whomps against the mountainsides. Someone more romantic might call this wind wailing song, but anyone who has experienced hundred-mile-per-hour winds knows they are not enchanting or melodious. Alpine winds are lashes. Try to sing in a lashing wind and your song will be ripped from you before your ears can hear it. Stand into the wind and your song will be thrust back down your throat before it can leave your mouth. In alpine wind you keep your mouth shut so the gusts don’t hollow and dry it like a carved pumpkin. Who would dare to stake their future on singing in the alpine? Certainly not I. But one little creature does. I listen for his song as I hike up past the trees and into the talus and tundra. He is the pika, smaller relative of the rabbit, known in the 19thcentury as little chief hare, known to me as a mountain hamster, singer of songs, good Samaritan of the alpine, and conduit of winter memory.

Pikas look like oversize hamsters with mickey-mouse ears. About the size of a fist with thick fur ranging in color from grey to tawny brown, they blend into their rocky habitat so well they can be tricky to sight even just a few feet away. They live in talus—fields of boulders and rocks piled among alpine tundra—above treeline along mountainsides. Treeline in Colorado is the elevation where trees stop growing, between 10,000 to 11,500 feet, a magical line where evergreen forests suddenly stop their climbing and stand in a solemn row against the upper mountain. The trees at the edge of the line are stunted with twisted trunks and branches that lean downhill away from the emptiness above. Everything beyond this line is held by hostile forces: wind, freezing temperatures, and snow. This is where pikas make their homes, where the trees fear to root and the wind tears music apart.

Every climb, wind or no, I hear pika calls, and depending on the time of year, songs.

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