Grades: 2-6, with adaptations to preschool and middle school
Objective: Describe pika behavior.
- Understand how a pika is adapted to its environment.
- Identify the habitat requirements of a pika.
State Standards Met: Physical Education 1.0; Science 3.1, 3.2
Group Size: 8 to 40 participants
The Pikes Peak site kit contains the following materials:
- 1 rope for start/finish line
- 13 cones
- 3 sets of directions cards to attach to corresponding cones
- 3 containers of approximately 50 pom-poms each
- 9 cups (3 each of 3 colors) for holding pom-poms when marking territory, with nails to push into ground
- 3 dog toy 'squeakers'
- 3 baskets (1 each of 3 colors) for holding food sticks
- 135 food sticks (45 each of green (grass), purple (forb), and orange (shrub)
- 3 tarps to simulate rocks
- One large 'snow' tunnel
- A Pika's Tail (by Sally Plumb)
- Plush pika
Description: The pika (Ochotona princeps) belongs to the order Lagomorpha, which includes rabbits and hares. Pikas are small, furry mammals with roundish bodies, short legs, short round ears, and no visible tail. Each foot has five digits and hairy soles that are good for gripping sheer rock. A pika looks more like a guinea pig than a rabbit, averaging about eight inches in length and weighing four to seven ounces. Pikas are often called cony, whistling hares, or rock rabbits.
Habitat: Living in the maze of talus slopes and rock fields throughout Colorado mountains above 8,500 feet, a pika is difficult to spot.
Diet: During the short high-country summer, pikas spend most of their time gathering vegetation to endure the long, frigid alpine winters. Using their chisel-like teeth, pika cut vegetation from nearby grassy meadows. Leaves and stems of grasses, forbs, and shrubs constitute 78-87% of the pika diet. Clovers, sedges, conifer needles, and woody bark are also eaten. As the vegetation is collected, it is spread on the rocks to cure in the sun, then stacked into hay piles and stored under the rocks. These stashes may easily cover an area of a hundred square meters and can reach up to two feet high. As much as 4 bushels of vegetation have been found in a single cache. The volume of a hay pile is perhaps that of a bathtub, and easily 30 species of plants may be found in one hay pile.
Pikas may also eat some of their own droppings, enabling them to get the most nutrients out of the vegetation they eat.
Behavior: When not foraging, the pika may be found sitting on a rock, basking in the sunshine, and keeping a keen eye out for predators such as coyotes, weasels. martens, and hawks.
More often heard than seen, these tiny creatures emit a loud, sharp squeak that can be hard to locate, much like when a ventriloquist "throws" his/her voice. When danger is near, a pika will whistle to other pikas in the colony, then disappear to the safety of nearby rocks.
Most activity occurs during the day, with peaks in the morning and late afternoon to early evening. Pikas do not hibernate, but their activity decreases in late fall and winter, and the animals spend large portions of time in dens.
When snow covers the talus, they dig snow tunnels to the surface to forage. The pike lives singly in its own territory, with males and females having some overlap in their adjacent territories.
Pikas are one of the most territorial mammals, frequently involved in chases and short fights. Urine, feces, and cheek glands are all used in scent-marking their territories.
Reproduction: Pikas breed in early spring, producing two litters, of which only one litter survives. Following a 30-day gestation period, the mother pika gives birth to an average litter of three young which are born blind and hairless. Young pika grow quickly (fully mature in six weeks) and establish their own territory by their first winter. Pika live up to seven years. The pika is a protected non-game mammal in Colorado.
Duration: Approximately one hour, but varies with the number of participants.
Set up the playing field (see drawing below)
Divide the students into two or three teams, with even numbers on each team. 'Leftover' players may become referees.
Explain the rules of the activity and walk through the procedures for each station.
Each team will line up, one students behind the other, behind the start/finish line. The 'pika' at the head of the line begins first, traveling in order from Cone 1 through Cone 5. Pikas have very short legs, so the students must walk hell-to-toe throughout the playing field (no running—or pika will be asked to return to the previous cone and begin again.) Directions for each station are listed below. (For younger students, go through the procedures for each station before you begin. Older students should be required to read and follow directions.) The pika at Cone 2 squeaks 5 times, signaling the next player in line to start their turn. Game is over when all pikas complete all seasons and return to the base colony. The team that finishes first is the winner.
CONE 1: It is spring in the alpine zone and you need to establish your territory. Take 3 pom-poms and mark the boundaries of your territory by putting one pompom in each of the 3 cups. Each team will have its own set of colored pom-poms and 3 cups. Set out the 3 cups in different directions around Cone 1. Students are to put one pom-pom in each cup to signify marking the territory boundaries. They may take all 3 pom-poms at once and distribute them. At the end of the game, you can count pom-poms in each cup to see if they followed directions correctly. If you want to time each team, points could be deducted for unequal numbers of pom-poms in the cups.
CONE 2: You spy a hawk soaring overhead. Freeze and squeak 5 times to alert others in your colony of danger nearby. After 5 squeaks the next "pika" in line may begin his/her journey. (Dog toy squeakers can be used.) The teacher or extra student can be a referee to check for correct squeak count.
CONE 3: The summer plants are growing tall and you need to start gathering food for the long winter ahead. One at a time, go out to gather a grass (green), a forb/flower (purple), and a shrub (orange) and bring them back to your hay pile (basket) to dry. Students may gather only one stick at a time and return it to the hay pile (basket) to dry. Then they can go out again to gather another stick of a different color. They need to gather 3 sticks total: one grass, one forb, and one shrub. Points could be deducted here for unequal numbers of food sticks.
CONE 4: Autumn is fast approaching and you've worked hard gathering your food. Lie down to sun yourself on the rocks (for a count of 10 "Mississippi's"). The teacher or extra students can be the referee to check each team for length of sunning time.
CONE 5: The winter snow is piled high on the tundra. Tunnel under the snow to look for food. Student will go through the snow tunnel to cross the finish line and join the other "pikas."
Read the book A Pika's Tail with your students and discuss pika behavior and adaptations they have made for living high in the mountains.
Pre- and post-visit activities, assessment and adaptation of this activity can be found in the T.E.N. curriculum manual.