Grit Blogs > Adventures in Rural Living

The Social Lives of Farm Animals

Marie James head shotFor me one of the joys of rural life is watching animals. Sometimes I'm very touched by what I see; sometimes I have a good laugh. I’ve also made some interesting observations about how animals entertain themselves, interact with each other, and respond to humans.

Horses play together and fight with each other. They will watch out for each other. In the wild, one stallion will lead and defend a herd of mares and young horses. A lead mare will be his second in command, and they will work together to manage the herd.

This is often seen in domestic herds as well. A stallion will usually have superiority over geldings (neutered males) and mares. However, if no stallion is present, a mare is likely to be queen of the herd. Geldings can also take a leadership role though. We had one gelding who was so protective of his favorite mare that we had him tested to see if any testosterone had been left behind.

The roles of horses can change as the grouping changes. For instance, at our place, when Star was around, King was submissive. But when Star left, King would take over the lead. But passive Bucky was always on the bottom rung of the ladder.

"Just act nonchalant like we don't know they're watching us."

 three horses chatting
Cows don’t really appear to play together much, except as frisky calves. Cows will fight on occasion, which can be complicated if they have horns. Cows don’t communicate much or show a strong hierarchy. Or so I thought.

My eyes were opened by "The Backyard Cow," in which author Sue Weaver reveals the social order of cows. In a herd of cows there is usually a head honcho, who may not really lead per se but gets first dibs at everything. And then there might be a morning hike director who leads everyone out to the pasture. A different evening coordinator brings them back to the barn at dusk.

And cows have a language all their own. Mooese consists of five main syllables used in combination to form six main calls, each of which has a different meaning. Ethologist C.J.C. Phillips has studied bovine communication in detail. (I had to look up the meaning of “ethology,” a new word for me. In case you, too, are in the dark, it is the study of animal behavior.)

"Psst...can you keep a secret?"

 two cows whispering
Chickens don’t appear to play, thought they sure like their dust baths. They will fight over food, roosting space, or for "just because" reasons not obviously apparent. The term “pecking order” came from the hierarchy of chickens. If roosters are present, one of them usually rules the roost, sometimes with the help of another roo or the alpha hen. Where there's no rooster, an assertive hen will take charge. The pecking order can sometimes be tracked from the alpha right down the line to the most submissive chicken.

Roosters have a few different voices for calling their hens to snack time, herding them into a corner to avoid danger, or warning off an intruder. Some roosters let their authoritative status go to their heads and become cocky (another term that came from the poultry world). And even a docile roo can overreact if you wear different boots or carry an umbrella.

Surprisingly, chickens also can have touching relational interactions. We have a pair of banties that are practically inseparable. One, the tiniest breed of the whole flock, is at the bottom of the pecking order. Her best friend, only slightly larger, is at her side day and night protecting and defending her. I have also seen a slender 4 pound hen spread her wing over a much larger 10# hen to protect her from perceived danger.

"In case any of you had a question about who rules this roost..." 

 hens on the roost
Horses, cows, and chickens…that’s about the extent of my experience with farm animals. In the next few months, with a new species on our farm, I expect to make some observations about the social life and communication style of pigs.

Do they utter assorted snorts? Can they wag their curly little tails? Do they share their food?

I’m eager to find out.

Marie and her husband, Jim, are developing a farm in the Pacific Northwest with their adult children and grandchildren. At The Homesteader Kitchen Marie and her daughter review kitchen equipment and talk about preparing and preserving delicious food. Along with other family members, Marie shares glimpses of country life at Rural Living Today and teaches practical skills at The Homesteader School