Pika – you’ve probably been saying it wrong all this time

pika 2 by connie sobchak

Over a couple of days, I reduced our online photo collection from 29,385 to 15,241. Talk about seeing your life flash before your eyes-well, flash isn’t really the right word but then neither is saunter. Mostly this was an enjoyable task, as I relived trips and hikes and social events and got ever more merciless with the delete key. I noticed however, that it was much easier to eradicate some groups of images than others. People rarely disappeared from the screen whereas, pikas, for example, got exterminated en masse.

pika by connie sobchak

As a distraction after a two hour session of editing this morning, I skipped over to Google to learn a bit more about this furry little creature, the pika, whose name I’ve been mispronouncing, who is incorrectly filed under rodents in our photo library and whose egg shaped body I’ve impatiently obliterated over a thousand times.

The pika (like pie, not pea, as I’ve been saying) is of the lagomorph family (rabbits and hares) and lives in talus slopes under the rocks in nests where it remains active year long. In China, there are plains pikas who live in burrows. This species has been decimated, much like our photo collection, by systemic poisoning in an attempt to stop the destruction of grassland habitat. Unfortunately, the pikas were recently discovered to be a keystone species, the removal of which causes a shakedown in the rest of the environment.

I had wondered what connection, if any, there might be between mountain goats, pikas, ravens, hawks, deer, permafrost, lichen, grasses and coniferous trees. While deleting the photos, it was clear that these images appeared together. What became obvious though, through my process at least if not just through hindsight, was that we never set out to do a photoshoot of just pika-our goal was goats and then if no goats appeared, or if they were just lolling about, then a pika gave us something to do.

mountain goats by connie sobchak

I’ve been working on my pika call, to the amusement of my husband but likely I will deploy it less often now because this vocalization is used to indicate territorial boundaries and in the spring the males call to attract mates. Since we now have at least thirty eight photos of pikas, there’s no need to entice them out of the rocks just for more shots. Still, they are entertaining much in the way of a jigsaw puzzle because it is not easy to spot them on the talus slopes. They draw you in when they dart from boulder to boulder and you can test your skills at communicating locations by attempting to situate them in a vast tract of grey and brown shapes. Surely this is some form of couples therapy…

But back to the deleting-far fewer goats than pikas were erased, yet the goats were generally less expressionless (even the ones we caught mating) than the pikas (no mating shots, so far.) Perhaps it is the size of the goats, or their bright coats and the way they cling to the cliffs. To date, no one has asked to see our pika photos, yet many want to view the goats and deer and hawks that inhabit the same territory. So far, just from observation, it does not appear that there are fewer pikas but I worry that they might be somehow be a keystone species on the talus slopes as well. Warmer temperatures decrease their populations but the permafrost in the areas where we view them remains so those pikas should be stable.

Still, it’s not lost on me that the smaller the creature, the fewer photos we keep. This feels like an analogy that can be applied to many situations and probably has though it took the disappearance of fifteen hundred furry faces for me to take notice.


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