Why do animals do what they do? Part 2: A herd is good

Herds are beneficial for prey animals for many reasons. Understanding our animal’s behavior and why they act in certain ways helps minimize stress in moving, handling and housing.

Ever wonder why your animal behaves in a certain way or does things that might not make sense to you? This new series from Michigan State University Extension will answer some of those questions to help youth and adults have a deeper understanding of their animals and work together as a better team for 4-H animal projects.

As previewed in Part 1, this article will begin the discussion of prey animals. Cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, and horses are all prey species that have been domesticated by humans. Some of these animals provide us with food (meat, milk, or eggs), others fiber (wool, hair, feathers/down) and some serve as companions, transportation or aid with work.

No matter what purpose these species have, they share one very important social characteristic – they are herd animals! The herds may take on species-specific names, such as a “flock” for sheep or “clutch” for chicks. No matter what their herd is called, they are still a group of the same animals existing together as a cohesive unit. These groups may not be permanent because there is always transition into or out of the group. Animals die, new animals are born and other may be kicked-out, depending on the social structure, age and sex of the particular species.

One of the most important features of a herd is that individual members benefit from group living for many reasons.

  • Safety in numbers. Catching one animal is much harder when there are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of similar animals nearby. There are always eyes watching for individual safety, which translates to safety for everyone. If one member of the herd notices trouble, they will share with the rest through vocalizations, behavioral changes and perhaps even scent cues to alert danger.
  • Camouflage. A large group of white, brown, black, red or a combination of colors makes it difficult to distinguish one animal from the next and is visually confusing to a predator. The normal coat color and markings of livestock helps them blend seamlessly from one animal into the next so predators have difficulty identifying a single target to prey upon. Perhaps eyes or a nose are visible, but not seeing exactly where one animal starts and another begins makes catching just one animal much harder.
  • More time to look for food. With a large group looking for trouble, individuals do not have to be constantly vigilant. This provides individuals the opportunity to spend time and energy on other tasks such as looking for food. When thinking about safety in numbers, multiple eyes mean one set of eyes can be “off duty” and relax for bit while another animal takes over the watch.

How does knowing this help us with our animals? Understanding our animal’s behavior and why they act in certain ways gives us one set of tools to help minimize stress in moving, handling and housing. Being part of a group where they can have some contact with similar animals is very important. Whenever possible, never move or house a herd animal in isolation. Isolation is seen as dangerous and life threatening for these species. They need to be around other animals of the same species or similar species. This meets a very important need that impacts an animal's affective state and impacts their welfare. At the very least, herd species should be able to see, hear and smell herd mates if they cannot be in direct physical contact with them.

Part 3 will explore more about the senses of prey animals – how they see, hear, smell and explore the world.

If you have animal behaviors you would like discussed, email them to elischer@anr.msu.edu.

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