Our Amazing Camelid Creatures – Stories of Camelid Behaviors
By Karen Nicholson of Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas, Stowe, VT
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)
are a few stories where llamas and alpacas exhibited interesting communication
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.
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.
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 an 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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 grow 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
with Other Species
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 weather and 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 the alpacas stick together. The goats
float between the three groups.
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.
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!
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 their herd, perhaps even keep a diary of interesting behaviors
observed and, for sure, - share your stories!
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: stowevermontalpacas.blogspot.com.
Any comments, questions or stories can be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org