Animals may not be able to talk, but they can certainly communicate—they do it with body language. And they do vocalize – anyone who has ever heard a single horse calling desperately for the others in the herd knows how forsaken such a call can sound. Mares nicker comfortingly to their colts or neigh a command for Junior to “Get back here right now!” Cows make similar noises of comfort. Our sheep have no trouble letting us know that they are obviously starving and we really should give them just a little more hay. Pigs are the Carusos of the animal world; they snort, grunt, shriek, bark, squeal, scream, oink and pop their jaws. Still, animals are more likely to use posture and movements to get a message across.
When the cows infringe on his grain or hay, the stallion lays his ears back in warning. Should the message be ignored, he will cock a hind foot in preparation for a kick or swing his head from side to side in threat. If necessary, he will make a rush at the offender, mouth gaping as though to eat them alive – although I’ve never seen him actually bite, the cows always scatter in terror and he returns to his food in self-righteous contentment. Our guests are sometimes unnerved by his habit of walking up to them and then suddenly doing an about-face to present them with his rear end. He’s not threatening to kick, he just wants the root of his tail scratched.
The sheep stamp their front feet to indicate displeasure, threat or alarm. Pigs face off with each other in a staring match, while cursing loudly in Pig. If neither backs down, they start shoving – in the case of the adults, that’s about 700 pounds of pig careening around the pen. Baby pigs root each other out of place for the food or Mama’s milk, all the while screaming as if they’re being killed. Calves butt each other in the head, shoulder, rump or any other part of the anatomy they can reach.
In more congenial moments, horses will stand head to tail, switching flies off each other. They scratch each other, too, by biting gently at the spots on withers and back that an animal just can’t reach for itself. The animal being scratched stretches its neck, sticks out its lips and makes similar signals of enjoyment and appreciation to let the scratcher know to keep up the good work.
Intraspecies communication also seems to work fairly well. Hercules the gander, like most ganders, is overly enthusiastic about his guard duties. He will tackle cows, dogs, people, the four-wheeler and anything else he thinks may be invading his territory. We feed our cows and the stallion a grain byproduct called screenings which contains some crushed grain and hulls. The geese and ducks always show up and hang around to gobble up anything that is dribbled or spilled by the livestock. Seems Hercules decided the stallion’s grain bucket was in fact gander property and tried to beat the stud horse off. I don’t know exactly how they settled it, but I notice that when Sox eats, Hercules now keeps his distance. And if the stud twitches an ear, Hercules turns tail and runs the other way. Seems like pretty effective communication to me…