Why Do Goats Flap Their Tongues?
Why Goats Wag Their Tails: Signs That Goats Are Ready to Breed
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Caprine sexual behavior can be rather dramatic and loud. Goats call out, flap their tongues, wag their tails, sniff each other (both their heads and tails), fight, and rub their heads on each other. This overt behavior stems from the fact that, in their natural environment, males and females segregate into separate herds outside the breeding season. Consequently, they have to seek each other out again when ready to mate. In addition, bucks rove from herd to herd over a wide area seeking estrous does. These extravagant displays help breeders to calculate the best time to introduce sexual partners and when to expect births.
Goats native to tropical zones are likely to breed at any time of year. However, seasonally breeding goats focus their sexual activity from early fall to spring (August to April), with the main event in fall, while in winter and spring females with failed pregnancies often mate again. Bucks become more active and eat less during August and September as they establish their rank with respect to other males, involving fights with close-matched rivals, and threats towards smaller and younger bucks. During this whole season, termed the rut, it is dangerous for males to be enclosed with close-matched rivals. Even with wethers, who automatically rank lower without having to fight, males need plenty of space to avoid conflict.
Dabbing on the Perfume
Throughout the season for goat reproduction, males emit a strong odor. This is mainly because they urinate in or over their own mouths, beards, and throats. Larger males do this more often than youngsters. This results in older and more dominant males smelling more strongly of urine and male hormones than subordinates.
The urine contains an olfactory signal of dominance as well as a scent that attracts females. The beard soaks up these odors and wafts them into the air. Scent glands behind the head exude a strong odor, which the goat rubs against branches and posts. This scent is markedly stronger during the breeding season. Like many mammals, goats use odors as part of their communication system, and can gauge the status of an individual by smell. A doe can judge identity, age, and ranking from a buck’s markings, and a male can gauge how close a female is to estrus. Urine is the main carrier of such messages in goats and many other ungulates.
After self-enurination, a buck will lift his head and perform flehmen (curling his lip upward). This procedure absorbs the liquid into his vomeronasal organ (a structure that performs a thorough analysis of complex hormones). In this way, he encourages his own virility by stimulating testosterone production. Females also use flehmen to examine complex animal scents. The male scent encourages estrus to recommence. When the buck is remotely sited, a rag rubbed in his beard can be taken to the female to sniff. This helps to trigger and synchronize estrus before introducing the buck.
Scenarios Where Goats Flap Their Tongues
On establishing contact with a potential mate, males call loudly and flap their tongues to produce the low, guttural groan—termed the gobble—that we find so comical. This is primarily a sign of intended courtship towards a doe, but can be seen in other circumstances.
- Firstly, a buck with no female companions will likely experience a build-up of hormones with no viable outlet. He may gobble towards subordinate males or even towards humans (particularly if he is tame). He may be quite persistent and paw or even mount his companions. When raising entire bucks, care must be taken to dissuade rough or mounting behavior with humans, as it can become quite dangerous when they are grown.
- Secondly, the victor of a conflict may gobble at the subdued rival, as a display of dominance.
- Thirdly, a doe with a cystic ovary may persistently gobble and mount her companions. Ovulation fails, and this may be related to hormonal imbalances. Although she behaves as in continual estrus, she will not ovulate again until the issue is resolved.
The Courtship Ritual
Once met with does, the buck adopts a sexual approach posture. This is a slight crouch with the neck extended, ears forward, tongue extended, and tail upright. Courtship patterns vary between individuals, but generally occur as follows. The buck approaches a doe from behind to sniff below the tail, and may lick her. He lunges forward so that he is parallel to her body, and gobbles, twisting his neck toward her flank. He may kick up with his front leg. Sometimes his leg rests upon the doe’s back, probably signaling an intention to mount. The female may move forward a little and continue grazing. At this point, the buck may stand near the female, rest his chin on her back, or look away (signaling non-aggression). All the while, his tongue is slightly extended, his tail up, and his ears forward.
If the female is not on heat, she will move away and try to ignore him. She keeps her tail horizontal or clamped down tightly. Normally, a doe will urinate for him at this stage, so that he can sample her hormones. The male takes the urine in his mouth as she passes it or puts his muzzle on the spot where the urine fell, so that he can absorb it into his vomeronasal organ. Then he performs flehmen. If he detects no estrus, he will move on.
If she is ovulating, he will continue to court her persistently. She wags her tail, but may initially run. He pursues her, gobbling and kicking. Undesired suitors are warded off with threats and butts, and she may back into a corner to prevent mounting. If he mounts and she is not ready, she will run forward until he slips off. Once she is receptive, she will stand still while he mounts, lower her head, and place her tail to one side.
A doe may court a buck, especially a large, attractive one. She may rub and butt the buck’s neck and shoulders, while he stands still. He may then court her in turn. Copulation may be preceded by mutual sniffing, licking, and circling.
The Female Prerogative
While bucks are competing, females also test their hierarchy to see who has priority to mate. When the male or his scent is first introduced, dominant females are first to come into estrus. They monopolize the males’ attention until ovulation is complete. Lower ranking does ovulate later, so they get their chance once their queen and elders have been serviced.
Given a choice, females will favor larger, mature, dominant, large-horned bucks. Males aged 5–6 years tend to be at peak fitness and to dominate. Older males also tend to invest more time in courtship. Smaller, younger bucks are often butted away. Naturalists have witnessed this in feral goats. However, on the farm, goats often do not have a choice of mate. Their willingness to mate with any partner has made goats suitable for domestication and farming.
Unfortunately, selection for willing breeders may have disrupted the rituals that aim to protect participants from injury. We can understand the importance of hierarchy for goats when we observe that they resolve any competition and establish priority before males and females meet, so that gestures are enough to keep rivals at bay. In this way, the dominant male is allowed first access to the dominant female and others have to wait until their time comes, be that days (for subordinate females) or years (for younger males). However, many males attending an estrous female can lead to a riot of dangerous frenzied behavior in which the dominant buck loses control and the courtship ritual is lost. This is why it is important to separate mature bucks at this time.
Why Goats Wag Their Tails and Other Signs of Estrus
Does are particularly vocal and sexually extroverted compared to other female ungulates. This is to do with the distance over which they have to attract males in the wild. Does vary in how they express heat: dominants tend to display more obvious signs, while lower ranks may be more subtle. Signs include bleating, tail wagging (thought to disperse hormonal scent), frequent urination, lack of interest in food, a pink vulva, and vaginal secretions.
Sociability levels may be noticeably different, with either an increased desire for contact or an unusual aloofness. Does without access to males often turn to each other or their owner for extra attention, and appreciate a rub and a scratch. Fighting between does may increase, interspersed with head-rubbing along the neck and body, nibbling or licking of the head or horns, and resting the head on a companion’s back, all reminiscent of courtship behavior. Does take an interest in their companions’ scents and may follow and mount another estrous doe. We can use these signs to judge when to introduce a buck. The following slideshow demonstrates some of these behaviors (in order: licking, resting head on back, gobble with leg-kick, tail-wagging, and horn-sniffing).
Signs of estrus are more obvious if bucks were absent during the summer months and return in early fall. Such management emulates the segregation found in nature, when males drift away into a bachelor herd in spring, then rove singly or in small groups to cover several female groups during the fall and winter. This natural segregation may occur because of differing nutritional needs or because females prefer to avoid aggravation from bucks while raising their kids. It certainly helps us to plan breeding and synchronize kidding to observe when goats flap their tongues and wag their tails!
- Shank, C.C., 1972. Some aspects of social behaviour in a population of feral goats (Capra hircus L.). Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 30(5), 488–528.
- Dunbar, R.I.M., Buckland, D., and Miller, D., 1990. Mating strategies of male feral goats: a problem in optimal foraging. Animal Behaviour, 40(4), 653–667.
- Alvarez, L., Martin, G.B., Galindo, F., and Zarco, L.A., 2003. Social dominance of female goats affects their response to the male effect. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 84(2), 119–126.
- Fritz, W.F., Becker, S.E., and Katz, L.S., 2017. Effects of simulated self-enurination on reproductive behavior and endocrinology during the transition into the breeding season in male goats (Capra hircus). Journal of Animal Science, 95, 4.
- Ævarsdóttir, H.Æ. 2014. The secret life of Icelandic goats: activity, group structure and plant selection of the Icelandic goat. Thesis, Iceland.
Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.