Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Just how smart are they?

"Sheep are dumb." recalls Rex, the border collie in 1995's "Babe." Research has proven otherwise, as well as my personal experience.

The picture here shows sheep crossing the most shallow area of a flooded pasture. My brother had come inside one afternoon after a downpour and told us that the sheep were trapped on a newly formed island in the pasture (the sheep pasture is quite hilly making it easy to form islands in floods). We went out there totally in rescue mode, but the minute we walked into the pasture, they went right to the edge and crossed the ankle-deep water. But why do they do this as soon as my mom and I walk in, as opposed to when they saw my brother? In the March 2008 issue of National Geographic, the cover story was of animal intelligence. One of the animals featured was sheep, and they mentioned that the animal can remember faces for months and even years. My guess? When the saw me, a.k.a. Hay Girl, they thought it was feeding time.

One of our new additions this year was an English Shepherd puppy, Porter, a puppy we hope will make herding the sheep into the barn for shearing easier. Each year it has been harder and taken longer to get our sheep in for shearing (in case you haven't guessed, sheep don't appreciate being sat on their butt and having their wool cut off). Our first year with only 6 sheep was very simple. Take out the pan of grain, shake it, and they came running faster than a coyote on a rabbit. Did it work the second year? Nope. The next couple years, we were using hay, grain, noise, anything. But each year, it was just getting harder and harder. Last year was, by far, the hardest. We always start early in the morning long before the shearer is due to arrive. There's a single pasture standing between the sheep pasture and the barn. So our first goal is always to get them in the next pasture. This year, we had been out there for over an hour trying to use grain, hay, and medal feed pans to herd them into the next pasture. Sheep are scared to death of dogs, so we got the brilliant idea to put our well trained obedience dog, Addy, to sit and block one side of the pasture. That made it much easier, and we finally got them into the next pasture. Next, we had to get them into the barn. We did the exact same thing with Addy. Addy was sitting quite still on one side of the pasture for blocking and the sheep didn't go near her, but neither did they go near the barn. Then after ten minutes, one single sheep went past Addy. That was when the sheep learned that she was not going to attack them, so Addy was no longer usable. We ended up catching each sheep one-by-one and putting them in the barn.

As you can see, the main key to the intelligence of the sheep, is memory. They remembered the face of the hay girl and thought it was food time. They remembered that when the two-leggers try to get them into the barn, they were going to be trapped in a stall, sheered, and de-wormed, and their hooves would be trimmed.

Now when it comes to goats, the farm animal that I'm most experienced with, their key to intelligence comes from the old saying, "Monkey see, monkey do."

We once had a male goat when we first moved here named Bucky. Of course, you can't have a male goat with the female goats. Otherwise you'll have lots of little baby goats running around. When we built him a separate pen, we mistakenly put the lock on his side of the gate. It was a typical lift-and-slide lock. Only a few days after locking him up, we looked out the window to see that he was out and about. When we brought him back to his pen, we saw that the gate was wide open as if someone had let him out. We shrugged it off and assumed that someone had forgotten to lock the gate. But alas, twenty minutes later, the buck was happily chasing after the female goats. Angrily, we grab the buck and drag him back to his pen to see that the gate was once again wide open. This time, we knew no one forgotten to lock it. We put him back in his pen, took a few steps back, and waited. Not shy about showing his technique, he happily walked up to the gate, lifted and slid the lock before pushing the gate open to victory. No problem. Just put a U-shaped nail in the lock. That way he won't be able to lift and slide. Wrong again. Ten minutes later, he was once again chasing the girls. And again, the gate was wide open with the nail lying on the ground. We locked him up again and he simply knocked the nail out before doing the same routine. The only reason we beat the buck at his own game was because he didn't have thumbs. We put a clip on the lock, and he didn't get out. Similar thing happened with our LaMancha doe, Muse. She figured out how to unlock the milking stanchion when she was done eating but we weren't done milking.

So sheep use their memory, and goats use the whole "monkey see, monkey do" factor. But are there animals that are naturally intelligent or instinctive?

The pigs, Blackberry and Top Notch were the ones that made me really think about animal intelligence. When discovering that Blackberry was pregnant, we saw that they were out of straw in their shelter. So the next chore time, I brought a bale of straw out and broke it open. I started breaking apart the flakes and tossing it into the shelter when the two pigs came over and started grabbing the straw themselves. "No, that's not food -- that's bedding!" I cried out at first. But then they walked into their shelter and tossed it to the back. I stared agog as they were spreading their own straw. The next morning, I peeked in the shelter to see that they had constructed a perfect and warm nest.

Even chickens are more intelligent than they appear. When catching chickens for butchering one summer, we came across a very intelligent cream rooster. It was dusk, so it was getting harder for us to see as we were catching the roosters. Their chicken house was right next to the woods, and that's where the remaining roosters were fleeing to. With two people, usually it's much easier and faster to catch chickens. Another thing is that poultry always run to avoid getting caught. Although chickens only reach 9 MPH, they make turns much faster and easier than people, and they don't get tired easily. The last rooster was fleeing into the woods, and the sun had almost disappeared behind the trees. When we got onto the steep hill by the creek, we couldn't locate the rooster anywhere. So we also opened our ears. We didn't hear anything -- no crushing of grass, panting, or making any animal communication. When passing a fallen down tree, I got the smallest glimpse of white. I turned and couldn't help but to let my mouth fall open when I saw that the chicken was under the log and had completely shoved himself under dead grass and sticks, making himself almost invisible. I walked up to the rooster, half expecting him to make a run for it. But he never moved until I grabbed him. If I were any old coyote or fox, I bet they would have never found him.

The intelligence of animals in this article is only based upon my own personal experience, and with farm animals that aren't considered the smartest. There's a lot of information on animal intelligence in exotic animals in the March 2008 issue of National Geographic.

I'm sure you've had experiences with your own household pets on intelligent. Care to share?

1 comment:

Jamie said...

I definitely think most animals are smarter than we think they are! I had a couple of goats some years ago, and they were very smart (and funny!). My horses, too. Now we only have a dog, but she is super smart; she closes doors (but the no-thumbs thing makes opening difficult!), opens the latched baby gate- she's even turned on the lightswitch before, but that may have been an accident!
I've enjoyed reading your blog, and it makes me long for a 32-acre school room, too!