A pika (from a breathtaking gallery of photos of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam by Yathin)

Hooray! This week Ferrebeekeeeper officially celebrates small herbivorous ground mammals! There are several reasons for this adorable theme, but chief among them are the week’s two prominent holidays:  1) Groundhog Day is on February 2nd, 2011; and 2) the first day of the Chinese year of the rabbit takes place on February 3rd, 2011.  Also I hope an endearing parade of little bewhiskered faces will help you forget your cabin fever and stay warm as this oppressive winter rages on.

Since humankind does not hibernate, I thought I would start the week with a non-hibernating lagomorph which, though not actually a farmer, is renowned for its haymaking abilities. This animal, the pika, is a close cousin to the rabbit (which will itself be amply celebrated on Thursday. Additionally, a world famous cartoon character, the Pikachu, may or may not be a pika.

A Pika Gathers Hay

Pikas are small densely furred animals of the family Ochotonidae which is part of the lagomorph order.  Lagomorphs most likely split from rodentlike forbears as far back as the Cretaceous–so the lepus and pikas both have an ancient heritage.  Pikas are generally diurnal or crepuscular and they eat grasses, sedges, moss, and lichen.  Most pikas are alpine animals, living on the mountain skree at or above the tree line (although a few burrowing species have moved down the mountains to the great central Asian steppes).  The 30 or so species of pikas are divided between Asia, North America, and Europe. Most Pikas live together in family groups (with the exception of North American Pikas which are maverick loners). Additionally, in Europe and Asia, pikas frequently share their burrows with nesting snowfinches.

Since pikas do not hibernate and they live on resource starved mountaintops, the animals harvest grasses in the summer and create little hay stacks so that their harvest will dry and be preserved.  Once these grasses dry out, Pikas store they hay in their burrows in order to provide both food and shelter during the brutal mountain winters. Unfortunately, the pikas are greedy.  They attempt to steal grass from their neighbor’s haystacks while simultaneously defending their own.  The ensuing fights are a major cause of pika mortality because the distracted combatants are easy prey for high altitude predators like hawks and ferrets.

Another pika (I'm sorry--online sources never tell me which species)

Even though Pikas have apparently been around for more than 65 million years, they get scant respect. Both Google auto-populate and my spell checker refuse to acknowledge the creatures and keep pushing me towards “pica”, an eating disease characterized by the consumption of non-food substances such as dirt or paper, or “Pikachu,” the mascot of the Pokemon children’s brand. This latter entity is a fictional yellow magical creature captured and made to fight as a gladiator by cruel Japanese anime children.  The Pikachu is capable of some sort of electrical attack. Pikachu may or may not have been based off of either the animal pika or a Japanese portmanteau combining the words for ‘spark’ and the noise a mouse makes.  The Pikachu’s cartoon features provide no help in assessing whether it is a pika or not, since the character looks eerily similar to a pika but doesn’t present any definitive trait (and possesses a most un pika-like tail to boot).  Although Pokemon’s star is mercifully beginning to set, the brand ruled childrens’ entertainment completely during the late 90’s.  Pikachu was ranked as the second best person of the year by Time magazine Asia edition in 1999 (finishing just below the not-quite out of the closet Ricky Martin, but ahead of Mini-me and J.K. Rowling).

Pikachu Float in the 2005 Macy's Thanksgiving Parade