As kids, we often went our merry way, humming the rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” never bothering to stop or wonder why the sheep always made these sounds. These sounds that sheep make are called a bleat or bleating.
Sheep baa to communicate with each other. They use a variety of sounds to communicate their position within the herd and use their sounds to bond with their offspring,
The baaing of a sheep produces a vibrato-like noise and is an efficient means of sending sound signals of the sheep’s identity across to others.
The vibrating sensation in the sound pitch allows the listener to identify sound modulations generated in the animal’s vocal tract.
Apart from baaing, sheep also produce other noises. These include grunting, snorting, as well as rumbling sounds. These sounds depend on the state of their mind and body.
You might hear the constant bleating, but you can listen to more on closer listening. Variations and subtle changes in tone, pitch, strength, and speed can also be detected.
Bleating sounds can range from very high-pitched to lower volumes and frequencies, from rapid to slow, and occasional to repetitive.
Domesticated And Wild Sheep
Domesticated sheep are small ruminants that differ from their wild counterparts in various aspects or traits.
Sheep were domesticated and split from their feral relative’s thousands of years ago and were reared for their wool, flesh, and milk.
Domesticated sheep have primarily become the victim of neoteny owing to selective breeding by humans. Neoteny signifies an animal’s delayed or deferred physiological growth and development, allowing them to keep juvenile features.
However, a few breeds have preserved some traits belonging to their wilder relatives, such as shorter tails. Domestic sheep differ widely in terms of wool quality, quantity, size, color, and milk output.
Domestic sheep also differ from wild sheep in color and hue. Wild sheep come in shades of browns, and any marked departure in color amongst the species is extremely low. Domestic sheep range from white to dark brown and are also found with spots and piebald.
Why And How Do Animals Communicate?
Animals communicate for the same reasons humans share. It can be for several reasons, both important and not.
Animals communicate to warn other animals of impending danger or a lurking predator. It can be a call for food, hunting, or a mating call. Sounds are also produced to mark territories, especially by larger mammals, and can be made to soothe and calm their young ones.
Animals have different sounds because humans have different tones, dialects, or languages. This is to help them distinguish themselves from other humans and communicate with each other, avoiding confusion or miscommunication.
Animals have a distinct sound to separate them from others and to avoid confusion. A male coyote calling a female coyote sounds different from a male fox calling a female fox.
Animals of the same kind have similar sounds, such as different breeds of dogs. This is a language for them to communicate with each other.
The tones, pitches, and frequencies help animals distinguish the purpose of the sound and determine if it is for distress, mating, danger, or food.
Why Do Sheep Baa?
Sheep baa for the same reasons all animals make vocalizations; to communicate. Although their bleats may sound the same to us, there is more information in these sounds for their herds.
Although the sounds are mainly used to communicate contact information between the dam and her lambs, they can also be used by other flock members to contact others.
The baa and meh sounds may appear the same, but each sheep has a different voice and tone to communicate which sheep makes the noise.
As lambs age, their sounds change in pitch, but their bleat essentially stays the same. Some are deep and end on a high note, whereas others can be high-pitched. Each is unique to an individual.
Why Do Sheep Baa
- Sheep baa continuously when they are closer to their food source or feeding area, and in the case of penned sheep, it is the shepherd or the owner who they consider their food source. When the sheep are in a pen during winter, they tend to be noisier as they cannot get out to feed. Pastured sheep rarely baa as they do not rely on their owners to provide for them.
- Young ones who are hungry or underfed will repeatedly bleat as they call for food from their mothers.
- Rams make rumbling sounds as a call for mating and during courting. The bleats may be to attract a ewe but can also be a sign of an aggressive ram.
- Rumbling noises can also be made by ewes while bonding with their newborns. They are a sign of assurance and help soothe the anxious young.
- Different types of bleats can be produced by sheep and may vary according to the sheep’s age or situation. Although most sheep baa for contact communication, the bleating sometimes indicates annoyance, danger, or intolerance. Sheep remain silent when they are in pain, except in childbirth. Snorting sounds produced by sheep indicate aggression or caution, usually when the sheep are alarmed.
- Separation from the herd or solitude often leads to baaing from sheep as they are herd animals, and isolation may cause anxiety.
- Ewes produce a grunting noise in labor; it indicates pain and distress during childbirth.
- When flocks shift to newer meadows, leaders baa and call all followers to trail them, and the flock baas in return and follow them.
- Any changes in their surroundings or the introduction of anything new will merit baaing from the leader, and others will follow suit. After assessing the situation and confirming the absence of any threat, the sheep returned to their normal behavior.
Mother and Offspring Communication
One of the primary purposes of vocalization in sheep is between the mother and her young. This is used to nurse or reassure or placate a young one by its mother.
Singular sheep bleats are distinctive and helpful in assisting the dam and her lambs to identify vocalizations. After giving birth to the young one, a crucial part of the lamb’s nursing is to develop the intimacy and identification between the dam and the lamb.
As soon as the lamb is born, the dam starts making gentle rumbling sounds expressing her joy and familiarizing herself with it.
Dams start making their sounds to their young ones soon after birth. Calm and reassuring bleats of the mother post-partum can help the young one in early vocal discrimination between its mother and other flocks.
Like the olfactory signals in sheep and other groups, bleating sounds are the controlling cue for anticipating the feeding pattern.
Bleating is a crucial aspect of the mother and young one’s post-natal nursing and stimulation regime bonding, communicating, and recognizing each other.
Vocalizations help the dam and the lamb facilitate and promote mutual vocal recognition and filial bonding.
The baaing is also used to communicate between the mother and the young ones. The baa’s tone and pitch help the ewe recognize if the lamb is in distress and helps her find them.
Feeding calls by dams also differ in tone; they let the young ones know when it is time for nutrition. It is not just the sound but the nuances that make all the difference and helps identify the nature and purpose of the bleat.
Sheep are complex creatures and can produce a variety of “baas” to communicate many things. Their vocal box is like a toolbox, with various tools needed to perform different tasks with changing circumstances.
Sheep have an intricate social hierarchy of families, allies, rivals, leaders, and followers. The next time you hear a sheep, hopefully, you will know a bit more about why it is making that noise.
References and Further Reading
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.