By Karen Nicholson, Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas, Stowe, VT
Eric Hoffman, in his book, The Complete Alpaca Book, writes: "Understanding how alpacas communicate is both entertaining and an extremely valuable management tool. After 6000 years of domestication, alpaca behavior has been modified by human management and breeding, but communication among alpacas is still rooted in their ancestral past. A look at behavioral research gives us insight into the amazingly broad repertoire of communication alpacas have inherited." (2nd edition, pg. 33)
Below are a few stories where llamas and alpacas exhibited interesting communication and behavior:
Beyond Survival Instinct
Brad Kessler in his book, Goat Song, tells an amazing survival story of a ram and his protector, a llama, living in the wilds of Vermont.
A neighboring farm had a dozen or so sheep and a guard llama. The owner's interest in the animals was to trim their fields. For fencing, they had a few strands of rusted barbed wire.
The llama did his job well until one summer a pack of coyotes began to take the sheep one by one. By September, all that was left was a ewe, a ram and the llama. The llama had a haggard look. The ram never left his side. The ewe was doomed with fear. Sure enough by frost, only the llama and ram were left. Then one day — gone.
Hunting season came and went, winter, and early spring passed. One day, late spring, the llama and ram were spotted nearby. The owners of the animals were contacted, the llama and ram caught, and put tight in a barn. Somehow they still managed to escape twice until finally, the barn was so secure that they no longer could.
One day I put one of our breeding male alpacas in the pasture with two females (with crias at their sides) that needed to be bred. This has and continues to be our preferred method of breeding. In that pasture there was also a maiden female gestating at 11 ½ months.
The sire went over, sniffed the manure pile to see who was receptive, and then went to check the females against his findings at the pile. Then, he began chasing one of the females. I left the pasture to go do other chores and would check back to see if any breeding was taking place.
Minutes later, my son came running to tell me that the sire was breeding the very pregnant female! My son explained that he saw this female approach the sire and cush. He then mounted her. Concerned for her well-being and the unborn cria's, I ran to get a halter to get him off of her! I put him back in his pasture and then examined the pregnant female. She remained cushed, like a receptive female would. I inspected her vulva and observed her for a while. All signs were that she was fine — ears forward and an overall relaxed body posture.
I took the opportunity to do fence clipping so I could keep an eye on her. About an hour later I saw a pair of feet dangling out. She had an easy delivery; a vigorous cria and she passed a healthy placenta.
In hindsight, I believe she cushed for him because she knew it would help to bring on labor. In humans and other species, intercourse is thought to help bring on labor. The sperm contains prostaglandin, which can help soften the cervix.
We have a small herd of four females plus crias. In the warmer months, they rotate on pasture with access to a 3-sided barn. There is no question that Opal is the herd guard, and we hear her warning calls from time to time when an unknown dog walks by or wildlife lurks in the forest beyond their pasture. She's discerning with her alarm and only alerts the herd when there is true danger.
One day, she was alarming. I went to investigate and for the first time ever, she was facing the house, not the forest nor the logging road where neighbors walk their dogs. She went on and on and I could not figure out what she could be alarming about in the direction of the house. The rest of the herd had banded behind her staring intently in the same direction.
After about 10 minutes of this, suddenly there was a great cracking sound and half of an old maple tree came crashing across the driveway, exactly the direction she had been facing and alarming. After the tree was down, she discontinued her alarm and went back to grazing. Two weeks later, she delivered a male cria. We named him "Timber".
Stardust is our 'star' when it comes to reproduction - exceptional crias and ability to nurture her young. In her 5 years of production, she has had 5 flawless births; all vigorous crias and they grew strong and healthy. This spring, she surprised us with a cria one week before 11 months of gestation. Just after birth, we usually stay back and give the cria the opportunity to walk and nurse independently and bond with its dam. This little one did not get up and did not sit prone position, so we intervened. Upon investigation, we found her temperature to be 4-6 degrees below normal.
After a couple hours, we were able to get her temperature up and then hold her up to get her nursing. For the next 30 hours, we had to check her temperature, hold her up under the dam to attempt to nurse, and syringe small amounts of goat collostrum into her mouth. At one point in the middle of the night, she appeared dehydrated and assumed the death position, so with no 24 hour vet available, we injected IV fluids under her skin and tube fed her. All the while, Stardust allowed us to do all this to her cria. She stood perfectly still while we tried to get the cria nursing and hummed calmly to her baby.
Just about 30 hours after birth, the cria was finally able to get up and nurse on her own for the first time. I was relieved, but not secure that she was going to be fine. I checked on her two hours later and to my great surprise, this dam, who had just hours before let me do anything to her cria, screamed at me as I approached and covered me with spit from head to toe. Despite my efforts to get close to the cria, I could not. Finally, in complete frustration, I had to relent and trust that our star knew she could take it from there and that it was her time to bond with her cria. Of course, I checked on them a few times in the night, but from a distance. A week later Stardust resumed her old ways; she ceased screaming at me and let me near her cria as she has let me near her others.
We had a male alpaca that came to us difficult to handle and not very trusting of his human caretakers. After a few months of positive handling, he came to trust us and greet us when we entered the pasture.
One day while cleaning up manure in the pasture, he walked right up to me, stared right into my face, hummed loudly, and then walked over to the pile and urinated. He repeated this two more times. It wasn't until the second time he behaved this way that it occurred to me that he was trying to tell me something. On the third time I found what he wanted me to find, he was straining to urinate at the pile.
I called the vet and he indicated that it was most likely a UTI (urinary tract infection) and that I should treat it. He said it sounded like it was caught early since he had a fair stream of urine but with obvious straining. The vet said he should improve within 1-2 days. He was obviously feeling much better on day two when he stopped coming over, humming in my face and going to the pile. I later found the source of his UTI. My children had mistakenly given him a whole bale of alfalfa instead of hay when they were doing chores.
Cooperation with Other Species
On our farm we have: 2 alpacas, 10 sheep, 2 goat does, 3 Lowline Cattle (bull calf, cow, steer), 3 Red Wattle Pigs (sow, boar, meat), 1 Maremmma LGD, and 25 Guinea Fowl. Everyone eats together without any problem. Everyone sleeps in the same general area unless there is bad weather, and then they all have their distinct shelter areas that they go to. The sheep all stick together, the pigs and dog all stick together, and the cattle and alpacas stick together. The goats float between the three groups.
One of the alpacas, a bred female, spends most all of her day with the cattle grazing or sunning. One interesting thing I have come to notice is that General (our LGD) is on duty at night and sleeps most of the day. Our pregnant female, Beana seems to take over the day shift. She is on high alert, and whenever she hears something suspicious, she will take off running toward it. Her alarm alerts General (LGD) and he wakes up and takes over while she herds everyone together. It is very neat to watch.
We used to have three LGD's and each had a job. General was the baby of the group and was the herder. Now that it is just him, he seems to work in cooperation with Beana, the alpaca, and has given the herding role to her. They seem to work very well together. I'm not sure how often the perceived threat is an actual one, but there have been instances of coyotes in the area. We kind of have a three-pronged security system as the guineas or Beana, the alpaca, seem to sound their alarm first, and General (LGD) takes over the investigation while Beana herds the animals together. It is fun to watch and perhaps as a result, we are a predator-free farm for the most part!
Our camelids have an amazing array of interesting behaviors to observe: body postures such as the alert stance, submission, the standoff, or relaxed position; ear, tail and head signals; vocalizations such as humming, the alarm, orgling; scent such as flehmen when the male alpaca sniffs a dung pile to decode the scent and reproductive status of his females; locomotion displays such as pronking or fighting; herd response such as banding or offensive aggressive herd response. Every camelid farmer should take time out in the day to observe his/her herd, perhaps even keep a diary of interesting behaviors observed and, for sure, - share your stories!
Karen Nicholson, of Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas in Stowe, VT, has a herd of nine alpacas bred and managed for valued traits including: fiber excellence, conformation, reproductive vigor; hardiness and temperament. Also on the farm are: two French Alpine dairy goats, Indian Runner ducks, broiler chickens and several laying hens, all integrated into their farm management program. Karen writes for three farming journals and keeps a blog: http://stowevermontalpacas.blogspot.com/. Any comments, questions or stories can be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.