Ever wish you could understand animal behaviors? What are your animals thinking? What's really going on in those curious little brains? Here's some things to keep in mind – on and off the farm. As told by one of our expert homesteaders.
Understanding Animal Behaviors On and Off The Farm
People who insist that animals don't have language are people who have not spent much time around animals. Either that, or they haven't been paying much attention.
Not only do animals communicate clearly with other individuals within their own kind, but it is not uncommon for connections to take place across species and among profoundly different types of animals.
I am not a scientist by trade, but I am by nature an observer of behavior. I also spend a lot of time around animals, from dogs to cattle to wildlife, and one thing is made clear to me: they understand each other's dialects. As a homesteader and nature-lover, I have learned the importance of becoming fluent in animal language.
Listen and Learn From Your Animal's Behavior
In understanding what animals are trying to tell us, the most important component is to listen and observe. Much of what animals have to say flies under the radar of humans around them. Interactions can be subtle, and can happen so quickly that we don't always even notice. Most humans will not catch it all, but the more we pick up on, the better grasp we will have on what is being said.
Among animals, as within human language, most communication is about more than words. Some studies say that over half of the messages conveyed from one person to another do not even involve sound at all, but rather posture and facial expressions. Of the actual audio, most of what is said has to do with factors such as tone, volume, and pitch.
Most of us have been immersed in human society our entire life and have learned to read the delicate nuances of nonverbal communication without even realizing we are doing so. When adapting to the language of animals, we might need to be a little more intentional about picking it up.
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Read Their Body Language
Like us, animals use a lot of different tools to impart meaning. In addition to body language that includes stomping feet, lowering heads, baring teeth, dropping ears, averting gazes, and swishing tails; they employ the senses of smell and taste to tell their stories as well.
My morning on the homestead includes plenty of animal interactions. The cat yeowls to be let out and the dog wags her tail in adaptation of being petted on the head before I even leave the house. Once outside, I see squirrels and birds, and hear activity in the backyard. Chickens thump around inside their house as they jostle in line for the door and wait for it to be opened for them, squawking in impatience and warning to the others.
Other livestock reacts to the morning as well. Goats vie to be first out the door, steers look up from their grazing with an inquisitive gaze, and young pigs emit high-pitched squeals as they race in excited circles around the pen in the anticipation of breakfast.
In the pasture and forest, crows and jays sound out an indignant cacophony, white-tail deer flag their tails as a warning of danger, and red squirrels sputter garrulous accusations among themselves.
Everybody seems like they are communicating with only their own. And maybe that is true, at least in as much as who they are all talking to. Sheep are talking to other sheep. Field mice are sending messages to other mice. Robins are singing a song to other robins. But they are all listening, all the time. Every animal is paying attention to what the others have to say, and so should we.
Every animal is paying attention to what the others have to say, and so should we.
One of the best examples of this on my homestead is when a chicken calls an alarm. I hear it and I get it. My dog gets it, too. The larger livestock animals do as well. None of us speak “chicken,” per se, but we all know what that particular vocalization means, and we all know how to react.
Understanding Animal Warning Signs
Wildlife creatures sound an alarm in a similar manner. Crows have a distinctive call for danger which they use for faces they don't recognize. Blue jays cream “Thief! Thief!” in the presence of strangers. Hares start and run. Beavers slap their tails. Other woodland animals recognize these sounds and behaviors as a warning that trouble is afoot, causing deer to stand stock still and coyotes to slink off surreptitiously.
As a farmer, I need to know what my animals are telling me. If a goat is hanging its face down and toward the wall, it probably isn't feeling well and needs to be looked after. If it is standing stock still with its front legs rigid, staring, there is something out of place. If the chickens are traveling as an aggregate with a dozen of them huddled into a space no bigger than a bathtub as they move around, they are terrified. If a steer is wide-eyed and nostrils flaring, it is sensing danger.
— Homesteading (@HomesteadingUSA) November 19, 2015
If one of my animals is saying there is something amiss, I need to be aware. One morning a few years ago my goats were acting strangely. Awkward and jerky, hypertensive to every move and sound. They kept gathering at the open back gate looking out, shoulder-to-shoulder like penguins pushing and shoving at the water's edge, each trying to get somebody else to venture in first. I gave a cursory glance out back and didn't see anything. I wrote it off as goats being weird and went on to other tasks.
Later in the day, we found a poor juvenile porcupine hooked to the electric mesh fence. It obviously tried to climb the fence, and got itself horribly tangled in the intricate mesh. The image of the poor creature suffering for hours—trying desperately to get loose, grabbing one high-voltage electric wire after another and becoming more and more ensnared—just broke my heart. Why had I not listened to what the goats had tried to tell me?! Had I found the porcupine earlier, I might have been able to unplug the fence and allow it to extricate itself. Instead, the animal had to be euthanized, and my husband spent hours removing the animal from the mesh and repairing the fence.
My dog gets what other animals are telling her. She whines at the shed door when the cat is waiting to come in, keeps her distance when a goat postures angrily at her, and stands by submissively while the older dog laps the grease out of a pan.
She sends out plenty of messages of her own, as well. It is said that dogs can smell fear. I do not know if that is true, but I do know that my dog emits a particular scent of her own when she is frightened. A strong distinctive musky smell always accompanies us to the vet and is evident after meeting up with an aggressive dog.
It pays when humans understand what companion animals are trying to tell us. A dog lowering its ears in relaxed friendliness is probably safer to approach than one averting its gaze or sniffing the ground in discomfort. A cat squeezing its eyes open and shut is probably happy, but one laying its ears back is not.
I spent a lot of time rubbing elbows with the wild world as well, and understanding the messages being sent by woodland creatures is an important skill. Is the yapping for fiercely guarding its den or just singing a happy song? Is the moose knee-deep in bog water considering me a threat that must be dealt with, or is its intense gaze one of curiosity?
Tuning in to what others are saying is an important skill for everyone, and nowhere is it more useful than in dealing with animals. By using all of our senses and practicing keen observation, we can learn to understand what our pets are thinking, keep our livestock safe, and live in harmony with the creatures of the wild.
Do you think animals have human emotions too? Watch it here with DNews:
Have you observed anything like this from your animals? Let us know below in the comments