Why Do Sheep Baa?


As kids, we often went our merry way, humming the rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” never bothering to stop or wonder why it was that the sheep always made these sounds. These sounds that sheep make is 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. 

Sheep

The vibrating sensation in the sound pitch allows the listener’s ability to identify sound modulations that are generated in the vocal tract of the animal.

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 just hear the constant bleating, but on closer listen, you can hear more. 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 from occasional to repetitive.

Sheep

Domesticated And Wild Sheep 

Domesticated sheep are small ruminants, and are different from their wild counterparts in a variety of aspects or traits. 

Sheep were domesticated and split from their more feral relative’s thousands of years ago and were reared for their wool, flesh, and milk.

Sheep

Domesticated sheep have largely become the victim of neoteny owing to selective breeding by humans. Neoteny signifies the delayed or deferred physiological growth and development of an animal, allowing them to keep juvenile features. 

However, a few breeds have preserved a few of the traits belonging to their wilder relatives, such as shorter tails. 

However, domestic sheep widely differ from each other in terms of wool quality, quantity, size, color, and milk output.

Domestic sheep also differ from wild sheep in colors and hues. 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.

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Why And How Do Animals Communicate?

Animals communicate for the same reasons humans communicate. It can be for several reasons, both important and not. 

Sheep

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 also be made to soothe and calm their young ones.

Animals have different sounds for the same reason as humans have different tones, dialects, or languages. This is to help them distinguish from other humans as well as to communicate with each other avoiding any 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 to a male fox calling a female fox.

Animals of the same kind have sounds that are similar, such as different breeds of dogs. This is a language for them to communicate with each other. 

Sheep

The tones, pitches, and frequencies help animals in distinguishing the purpose of the sound and determining if it is for distress, mating, danger, or food.

Why Do Sheep Baa?

Sheep baa for the same reasons as all animals make their 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 mostly used to communicate contact information between the dam and her lambs, it can also be used by other members of the flock to contact others.

The baa and meh sound may appear to be the same, but each sheep has a different voice and a tone to communicate which sheep is making 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.

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Sheep

Why Do Sheep Baa

  • Sheep baa continuously when they are closer to their food source or their feeding area, and in the case of penned sheep, it is the shepherd or the owner who they consider their food source.   During winter, when the sheep are in a pen, they tend to be noisier as they are unable to get out to feed. Pastured sheep rarely baa as they do not rely on their owners to feed them.
  • Young ones that are hungry or are underfed will repeatedly bleat as calls for food from their mothers.
  • Rams make rumbling sounds as a call for mating as well as 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 her 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 age of the sheep or the situation. Although most sheep baa for contact communication, at times, the bleating is also to indicate annoyance, danger, or intolerance. Sheep remain silent when they are in pain, except in childbirth. Snorting sounds produced by sheep are an indication of aggression or caution, usually occurring when the sheep are alarmed.
  • Separation from the herd or solitude often leads to baaing from sheep as they are a herd animal, and isolation may cause anxiety in them.
  • A grunting noise is produced by ewes when they are in labor; it is an indication of the pain and distress during childbirth.
  • When flocks shift to newer meadows, leaders baa and give a call to 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, sheep go back to their normal behavior.
Sheep

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. 

Very much similar to the olfactory signals in sheep as well as other groups, bleating sounds function as the controlling cue for anticipating the feeding pattern. 

Sheep

Bleating is a crucial aspect of the post-natal nursing and stimulation regime of the mother and young one bonding, communicating, and recognizing each other. 

Vocalizations help both the dam and the lamb in facilitating and promoting mutual vocal recognition and filial bonding.

The baaing is also used for contact communication between the mother and the young ones. The tone and pitch of the baaing help the dam recognize if the lamb is in distress and helps her in finding them. 

Feeding calls by dams also differ in tone, and they let the young ones know when it is time for nutrition. 

It is not just the sound, but the nuances in it that make all the difference and help in identifying 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 tool-box, which can produce a variety of tools needed to perform different tasks with changing circumstances. 

Sheep have an intricate social hierarchy made up of families, allies, rivals, and leaders as well as 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

https://www.livescience.com/52755-sheep-facts.html

https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5385708.pdf

https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/why-sheep-calls-have-that-unmistakable-vibrato

https://jeb.biologists.org/content/211/22/3554

http://medpub.litbang.pertanian.go.id/index.php/jitv/article/view/1274/1303

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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