We’re calling it “promiscuous parenting.” Last July, our “boy flock” of boy sheep (rams) and boy goats (bucks) pushed open a decrepit gate and staged an impromptu frat party with the girl sheep and girl goats. We didn’t discover the incursion until the party had been going strong for several hours. The result was predictable. We aim to have all of our baby sheep and goats in April. This year, a bunch of them came in January.
That’s not unusually promiscuous — billy goats will be billy goats, after all.
Our mother goats, on the other hand, are usually possessive and proud of their babies — their particular babies. If any other kid attempts to nurse, they normally push it away, but not this bunch. The second birth in January was a pair of aggressive and gregarious twins who chose to have two moms, then three. Right now, we have five babies and three moms, none of which seem to recognize any particular genetic relationship.
Initially, we were concerned that the older and stronger kids would deprive the new arrivals of their meals. Then we saw the new kids move down the smorgasbord to an unrelated but cooperative mom. Every baby belongs to every mom, and it appears to be working out well. The kids aren’t just healthy for midwinter babies — they are among the strongest bunch of days-old babies we’ve ever had. Sometimes it takes a village, I guess.
Mother goats are sometimes called “nannies.” This year that seems particularly appropriate.
In the pasture next to the promiscuous parents, this winter we have a tiny heifer calf I’m particularly proud of. The little heifer, Fiona, had some bad luck early in her life and developed an infection that, by the time I discovered it, had already blinded her left eye. She was small, and was born in fall, which is when our best pasture is farthest from the house, near a creek and a stand of woods where our resident family of coyotes has a den. Because the cows needed the grass, I elected to leave them on this faraway pasture even though I thought chances were slim for the little blind girl so close to the predators and so far from our protective dogs.
We have never lost a calf to a coyote since we moved our first cows here eight years ago, but coyotes have taken a few of our lambs — generally one or two a year out of a lamb crop of 20 to 30. Last year we lost one kid to a bobcat, which also left a nasty claw mark across the nose of the mother goat. When we have baby sheep or goats, the predators are particularly bold, hovering at the edges of the pastures in the twilight and keeping the border collies on guard duty all night long. Our coyote family seems to be large, based on the ruckus they raise nearly every night. But the cows have never let them take a calf.
Most of the experts agree that coyotes rarely kill calves. When I was a kid, ranchers routinely shot coyotes and claimed they were protecting their calves. I figure the ranchers I knew killed coyotes primarily because they enjoyed hunting coyotes.
If coyotes take a calf, it generally happens under unusual circumstances: a weak or injured calf, or an incompetent mother cow. Fiona was both weak and injured.
Thankfully, she had a good mom. Half a dozen times over her first 3 months of life, I concluded that Fiona was dead. I wouldn’t see her for several days at a time. Then I’d notice her mom, Tammy, off by herself in the tall grass, and if I kept watching I would catch a glimpse of the tiny calf by her side. Once or twice I went out to search for Fiona’s remains, only to have her jump and run out of a thick patch of grass when I walked up.
Tammy’s mom, Silvia, is also our cow. Tammy was born at our place in 2005. When I was checking my records for this story, I was surprised to see my note that Tammy was blinded in her right eye by an infection when she was 3 weeks old. Over the years, the white scar on her cornea has faded so it’s barely noticeable now. If I think about it, her blindness is obvious in the way she always cranes her neck to the right to look at me through her good left eye. She’s gotten along fine and I had simply forgotten about her handicap. Now, probably because of some genetic weakness, she has a daughter who’s blind in the opposite eye.
When a predator is in the pasture, our cows bunch up and face their adversary, sheltering the calves behind the adults. The goats and sheep do the same, using our guard donkeys as their bulwark. When the sheep are alarmed, the flock’s reaction is like ballet: rapid, graceful and exquisitely coordinated.
Sheep, cattle, goats, dogs, donkeys, chickens and people are all social animals, heavily dependent on cooperative effort and reliable parenting skills. Without a good mom, Fiona wouldn’t have survived. Without Silvia, Tammy wouldn’t have survived. And without the support of the herd, Tammy and Silvia wouldn’t have become the successful mothers they are.
If you think about it, how many people do we depend on to support us throughout our lifetime? I count hundreds of individuals without whom I may not have survived and certainly could not have prospered. (Thanks to you all.)
The lambs and kids born this winter are obviously taking advantage of their community’s support. I have to laugh at the exuberant way they nurse, and how they switch from mom to mom, frolicking around the group from one udder to the next. The patient mothers seem to be performing their community function altruistically. But it’s something much deeper than altruism that motivates them.
Photos: (Top) This bouncy bunch of winter-born kids has been taking full advantage of the patient nannies — and the fun tree stumps — at Rancho Cappuccino. Credit: Bryan Welch.
(Bottom): Little Fiona is thriving on the ranch, thanks in large part to Tammy's motherliy instincts. Credit: Bryan Welch.