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    Behavior 104 For Animal Sanctuaries: Anti-Predator Behaviors

    A blackish brown bull paws the ground with their head lowered. They are standing in a green pasture.

    We hope you have been enjoying our series on animal behavior. If you are new to the topic, we’d recommend starting at Behavior 101 For Animal Sanctuaries and working your way up to this resource. In this resource, we are going to cover anti-predator behaviors and how these behaviors may vary between traditionally farmed animal species. If you are a caregiver, this is important information to know about the species under your care. Not only can this information help you identify resident behaviors better, but it can also help you understand if/when your behaviors as a caregiver may be perceived as a threat. This helps keep everyone happier and safer and allows care staff to adjust their behavior in ways that are less threatening or entirely non-threatening to residents. It will provide you with a foundation on which to build your care routines. When you understand how a species generally responds to perceived threats you’ll be able to better assess how residents feel in their environment and whether changes can be made to improve their lives. Let’s start with an overview of anti-predator behavior!

    Anti-Predator Behavior

    Anti-predator behaviors fall into two categories: avoidance behaviors and defensive behaviors. Avoidance behaviors include hiding, alerting others, becoming silent, and being vigilant in addition to other behaviors. Defensive behaviors include behaviors such as fight, flight, or freeze, in addition to behaviors such as startle displays (behaviors that communicate to the predator that the prey animal has detected them and won’t be caught unawares).

    Another way ethologists (animal behavior scientists) may break down anti-predator behaviors is into primary defense mechanisms and secondary defense mechanisms. Think of primary defense mechanisms as behaviors a prey species will perform whether or not a predator is detected and secondary defense mechanisms as behaviors prey animals display if they detect a predator or a predator attacks them.

    There are other ways animals avoid detection by predators that aren’t always behavioral, such as mimicry of inedible items or poisonous/venomous animals. Think of walking sticks and certain species of brightly colored tropical frogs. However, mimicry isn’t typical of traditionally domesticated species. 

    Cost Benefit Analysis

    Everyone needs access to resources whether that be water, nesting materials, shelter, or food. Avoiding predators requires a prey animal to remain aware of what is happening around them and make decisions that balance safety from predators and access to resources. There are two concepts that, while similar, have nuanced meanings, depending on the source. These concepts are “prey apprehension” and “vigilance”. These fall under avoidance or primary defense mechanisms. Let’s take a closer look at avoidance/primary defense mechanisms starting with these.

    Avoidance Behaviors

    As they sound, avoidance behaviors are those practiced to avoid predators. Staying undetected is a prey animal’s safest bet. Once they have been spotted or attacked, the risk of injury and death increases significantly. This is why they are also referred to as primary defense mechanisms. They are the first line of defense. Let’s take a closer look at primary defense/avoidance behaviors.


    As mentioned briefly above, some sources consider both prey apprehension and vigilance to fall solely under the definition of vigilance. However, other sources look at these overlapping behaviors as distinct. To start, in the field of animal behavior, the definition of vigilance is the behavior of animals monitoring their surroundings in order to heighten awareness of predator presence. This may look like a rabbit eating clover while their ears are up and they are surveying their surroundings and listening for possible threats.

    A wild rabbit, covered in brown and grey fur, eats clover while surveying their surroundings.

    Prey Apprehension

    A wild rabbit, covered in brown and grey fur, pauses in eating in order to look around. They have detected a possible threat in their vicinity.

    Prey apprehension refers to an animal who is vigilant and pauses while foraging or performing other resource-gathering activities in order to detect signs of a predator. For example, imagine a rabbit resident grazing in their protected outdoor living space. Their body language is alert, with one ear swiveling to the side, as they nibble their tasty treats. Say this same resident suddenly stops, raises their head, sits up on their hind feet, and turns toward an unfamiliar sound. This is prey apprehension. Some texts include prey apprehension as part of vigilance and do not distinguish between a state of alertness and a state of pausing activity.

    Habitat Selection

    Prey animals often select particular areas to build their homes that offer the necessary shelter and safety they require from predators. An example of this is avoiding areas where predators are more likely to inhabit and building or utilizing natural cover (such as an empty hole in a decaying tree trunk) for their home. Prey animals may try to forage in spaces that offer protection or only forage during times when predators are less likely to be active. Still, many group-living prey species have “guards” keeping watch for any sign of danger.

    A green parrot with a bright orange beak peaks out of a hollow in a tree they have chosen for their nest.

    Predator Facilitation

    This is a challenging situation for prey animals. Predator facilitation happens when more than one predator or predator species is present. Say a young turkey spots a hawk. They may crouch down in the grass and remain motionless in an attempt to avoid the predator’s attention. This seems to be working until they pick up the scent of a nearby fox and hear them getting closer. With mere seconds to decide, the young turkey has to choose whether they stay still and possibly expose themselves to the fox or run away and risk the talons of the hawk.

    A golden eagle soars with their flapping wings. Below is fox on the prowl.

    If you, as a caregiver, find yourself in a situation where a resident (particularly a large resident) finds you or your behavior threatening and there is something behind them they also find threatening, be wary and make safe choices for yourself and the resident to ensure you don’t end up pressuring the resident to go through you to avoid the other possible threat. Now that we have looked at some primary defense mechanisms, let’s look at defensive behaviors that may happen after a predator is detected or attacked a prey animal.

    Defense Behaviors

    When an animal encounters a predator, they may flee (flight), freeze, fight, or choose another tactic. Different species may have different reactions. Such is the case with horses and donkeys. Both are equines, but they evolved in different environments, making horses more prone to flight because their ancestors lived in more open spaces and in large groups. This made it more difficult to be caught by predators. On the other hand, donkeys lived in smaller groups in areas where the topography was rocky and arid, making them more likely to successfully survive an encounter with a predator by standing their ground together. Attempts to flee would likely be less successful as they wouldn’t be able to move quickly over large rocks and with fewer individuals, it would be easier for the predator to choose an individual to attack.


    This is self-explanatory. A prey animal flees when they detect a predator or a predator attacks. Every individual has their own flight zone. In the simplest terms, a flight zone, also called a flight distance, is a nonhuman animal’s personal space. How close can someone get to you before you take a step back? This likely varies depending on the relationship you have with that person (close friend, coworker, stranger, grandparent, and so forth), your personal experiences and preferences, your personality, whether it is night or day, and even your cultural experiences. Nonhuman animals also have levels of comfort surrounding space with humans and others! The flight zone is the space around an animal where they become uncomfortable and will move away when that boundary is crossed.

    A herd of appaloosa and paint horses run across the plains.

    Different species may have different general flight zones. This might be most clearly demonstrated in examples between wildlife and domesticated animals, where wildlife tends to have a much larger flight zone. Consider wild rabbits versus domesticated rabbits in this instance. Wild rabbits generally have larger flight zones although domestic rabbits will have one too. There is just a good chance that it is smaller than wild rabbits. Their history with humans and other species can play a large part in their comfort levels, affecting their flight zone. And, since everyone is an individual, some residents may just have personalities or temperaments and tend to prefer more distance between them and humans or other perceived threats.


    A small brown mouse hunkers down on the ground. They are still, attempting to avoid notice.

    A prey animal stills in an attempt to hide from the predator they have detected. This is a choice the individual makes. This is different from tonic immobility or death-feigning which is less controlled behavior and more of a last resort instinctive reaction to a predator’s presence or attack.


    A prey animal physically defends themselves from a predator. This may include biting, pecking, kicking, flapping wings, or other physical movements intended to chase the predator off. This could include some threat displays such as charging a perceived threat or stomping or pawing the ground. Stomping or pawing the ground could also be an example of prey signaling. Let’s take a closer look at this behavior below!

    A white goose spreads their wings and runs at the person holding the camera with their beak outstritched.

    Prey Signaling

    Prey signaling refers to the behavior where a prey animal communicates to the predator that they (the predator) have been detected and won’t catch them (the prey animal) by surprise. This signaling communicates “I see you. You won’t catch me by surprise. I have a head start and you are less likely to catch me”. 

    As mentioned previously, pawing the ground or stomping are examples of possible prey-signaling behavior. In addition to being a signal to the predator or communicating a threat/willingness to fight, some prey signaling may also serve as an alert to their companions nearby. A unique form of this can be seen in a species of gazelle called spronking or stotting. Spronking is an anti-predator behavior a gazelle may perform by jumping and popping all four hooves off the ground, when they see a predator. Scientists theorize that this specific display shows the predator that the individual is physically fit and ready to run, seriously decreasing the predator’s chance of catching them if they decide to attack. It can also alert others in their herd to potential danger.

    Tan and white gazelles with black horns, jump straight up into the air.


    A prairie dog stands over a burrow. Their tail is stiff and they are crying out an alarm to the other prairie dogs that a predator is near.

    Alerting is when an individual(s) communicates the presence of a threat through vocal communication or body language, behavior such as stomping, or even through the arrangement of feathers/fur or body. Prairie dog behavior can provide us with a great example of alerting when a predator is detected. In fact, this species is known for their wide range of vocalizations and communicating whether the predator is in the air or on the ground. They even have alert calls that tell others what type of predator is in the vicinity. In a farmed animal sanctuary context, chickens have many different vocalizations. Two of these vocalizations can also convey the presence of a predator in the air or on the ground! Check out the video below to watch a rooster warn of danger nearby.

    Startle Display

    A beautiful golden brown butterfly has opened their wings, revealing large spots that look like a predators eyes.

    A startle display refers to behaviors where a prey animal has detected or been attacked by a predator and they reveal a hidden physical aspect of themselves to startle or confuse predators, allowing them a chance to escape. Examples of this include cephalopods that shoot ink and butterflies whose wings have “eye spots” when open.

    Distraction Displays (Diversionary Behavior)

    A brown, white, and black plover (bird), holds their wings out to the side, imitating a bird with broken wings to lure predators away from their nest.

    Distraction displays refer to anti-predatory behaviors certain prey animals use to lure predators away from something. The best example of this may be seen in birds. In some bird species, such as plovers, a parent may feign a broken wing to lure a predator away from their nest. When they have successfully done so, they will simply take off.

    Death-Feigning Behavior 

    The most common example of this “behavior” you may think of if you live in the United States is “playing dead” or “playing possum” as many people have observed or heard of opossums doing this. “Playing dead” is a defense certain animals have to ward off predators. Scientists have discovered that this “behavior”, also called tonic immobility, is less of a controlled behavior than previously thought. It differs from the freeze defense in that those experiencing it cannot move. Their muscles become temporarily rigid and unmovable. In some species, they may also defecate, urinate, vomit, or expel secretions from anal glands or blood from their body. It may seem like a strange defense mechanism given that the individual becomes helpless. However, scientists postulate the evolutionary reason behind this may be to deter predators from further attacking or attempting to subdue the individual. A number of species exhibit some form of tonic immobility. It is seen in certain mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans, and insects. You are likely familiar with “fainting” goats. What you are seeing is actually tonic immobility triggered by fear.

    A small hognose snake lies belly up, their mouth wide open. They are playing dead.

    Antipredator Behavior In Farmed Animal Species

    Now that we have covered the basics of anti-predator behavior, we will take a brief look at different species of farmed animals and how this may apply to them. You will notice a lot of the same behaviors between the following species though they have different ways of expressing them. Let’s look at alpacas first!

    Alpaca Anti-Predator Behaviors

    Alpacas may make a high-pitched vocalization when predators are near and pace back and forth. They often pin their ears back and lift their head, put their tail straight up, and stand stiffly. If they deem someone a threat they may run away, stomp the ground, charge at them, and/or spit, bite, trample, or kick. Many alpacas are also a little shy about human touch and may move away once you or another caregiver enter their flight zone. This is a common behavior. However, if they really feel threatened they may run or choose to fight. It is important to closely observe the individual’s behavior and how you approach them to ensure the safety of staff and residents. 

    Chicken Anti-Predator Behaviors

    If chickens sense a potential threat nearby they often sound an alarm call to let the rest of the flock know of the threat. Depending on if the predator is in the air or on land, chickens may choose to scurry away and hide together, wings flapping and alarm calls blaring, or stay quiet and still. Roosters, who often get a bad reputation due to misunderstandings about their behaviors, will often chase and attack a perceived threat. They care about their flocks. Sometimes the rooster will sound the alarm and run with all the hens to safety. However, they will usually try and defend themselves by fighting off the threat. Chickens may also experience tonic immobility which is less of a conscious behavior and more of the body’s instinctual last effort to survive. If a resident becomes stiff and still, seemingly unable to move, there is a good chance that these defense mechanisms have kicked in and they are likely very stressed.

    Cow Anti-Predator Behaviors

    While domesticated cows show less anti-predator behaviors than their wild ancestors, they still retain some of these behaviors. When a threat is perceived, cows may become restless and vocalize, alerting others that something is wrong. Other common anti-predator behaviors include vigilance, grouping, and fleeing. Grouping is just what it sounds like; everyone huddles together for safety. It makes it much more difficult for predators to attack someone when they are in a group formation. In addition to these, a mother may charge and fight if she believes her baby to be in danger and some cows will use threat displays (head tossing/lowering, pawing the ground, charging, chasing, and at times butting with their head or trampling). So be safe! 

    Donkey Anti-Predator Behaviors

    As we covered above, donkeys evolved in rocky, arid regions, making them more likely to successfully survive an encounter with a predator by standing their ground together as opposed to fleeing. However, some donkeys may choose to flee. Donkeys may also lay their ears back and stretch their necks out, charge, kick, bite, and trample if they feel threatened. The way a single donkey responds may be different depending on whether they are in a group (herd) or not. This is true for most of the species we are discussing.

    Duck Anti-Predator Behaviors

    When discussing duck behavior, it is important to note the behaviors can vary significantly by breed. A mallard (wild) versus a Pekin (domestic) versus a mule duck (muscovy/domestic hybrid) may vary significantly. Duck groups may be broken down into diving, dabbling, and perching ducks. As you can imagine, some behavioral characteristics differ between these groups. Simply put, a perching duck isn’t going to have “diving” as their go-to anti-predator behavior. Because of this, it is important to consider the types of duck residents you care for and learn if they have any species-specific anti-predator behaviors.

    While there are some differing theories, most specialists agree that domestic ducks have evolved from mallards, aside from muscovies who originated in South and Central America where their wild counterparts lived in tropical, marshy forests, roosting in trees. Mule ducks are sterile offspring resulting from a muscovy and a domestic duck breed. Depending on what different domestic ducks were bred for will affect their behavior. However, an overview of duck antipredator behaviors would include vigilance and prey apprehension, freezing, alarm-calling, attempts to run or fly away(flight), struggling, rafting (swimming close together as a flock), and even death-feigning in some species. 

    Geese Anti-Predator Behavior

    Depending on the breed, domesticated geese are descended from either the Greylag goose (an ancestor of European species) or the Swan Goose an ancestor of Asiatic breeds). They share a number of anti-predator behaviors with ducks. These include vigilance and prey apprehension (as well as being choosy about where they eat and sleep), alarm calling, attempts to run or fly, or struggling if caught. However, they are more likely to threaten and attack if a predator is spotted. They will also take turns as “guards”, ready to sound the alarm, while others forage. While geese are excellent swimmers, they generally prefer to forage on land. However, when resting, they often go rest on the water to avoid predators, if a large enough body of water is available.

    Goat Anti-Predator Behavior

    Wild mountain goats rely heavily on vigilance, early predator detection, and escape terrain. Escape terrain is basically any terrain they excel in navigating that would prove difficult for the predator, such as cliff edges or rocky mountainsides. However, if they aren’t able to successfully flee, many goats will lower their heads and use their horns (if they have them) to fight off predators. In one study on goat anti-predator behavior, free-ranging domestic goats appear to prefer firm, open ground which allows for better predator detection, reducing the chance of ambush. Domestic goats in a more contained environment may show less vigilance than their free-ranging counterparts though this isn’t always the case. Domestic goats retain some of the antipredator behaviors their ancestors practiced. For example, in both wild and domestic goats, neonatal goats will find a hiding spot (if available) and remain hidden for a week or so after birth. Their mother will avoid the area where their newborn is hiding, except to nurse, to reduce the risk of predation. Goats may also rear back and lower their heads in threat to make themselves appear bigger, and even charge predators.

    Horse Anti-Predator Behavior

    Horses evolved on open plains where they were able to spot predators from a distance. They often lived in larger herds and would flee together. However, there are feral populations of horses on certain islands where there are no real predation threats. In these populations, anti-predator behaviors may be significantly diminished. Domestic horses in more confined, human-managed spaces, may show less vigilance or reaction to novel sounds or sites if they haven’t experienced predation. Despite this, if a horse is surprised or hurt or feels threatened, they will often flee, given the opportunity. If cornered, injured, or frightened while in the proximity of a human, even a human they are comfortable with, they may rear, kick, trample, throw their head, and even charge right at the human in their way. It’s a blind panic. Their system is telling them they are in great danger and they need to protect themselves. For most horses, this looks like outrunning the threat. Horses practice vigilance and prey apprehension consistently. When a horse hears a sound they are uncertain about they will lift their head and raise their ears. They aren’t necessarily alarmed at this point. However, if they aren’t satisfied that it was non-threatening, they may become alarmed. You will see their body posture change and stiffen. The muscles in their face will be tenser. There are other signs as well. Notably, they may vocalize an alarm to their companions. There is safety in numbers and this can bring the horses together, depending on their relationship and the environment in which they are living. 

    Llama Anti-Predator Behavior

    Llamas have a number of anti-predator behaviors. Besides vigilance and other avoidance behaviors, llamas will also sound an alarm if they detect a threat. Their body language can also indicate caution or alarm. When confronted with a predator, depending on the size, llamas may charge, chase, kick, and stomp. In some situations, a llama may even use spitting as a deterrent. You may have already found this out if you’ve had the bad luck of annoying a llama resident. While llamas are more likely to fight than some other species, this doesn’t mean they won’t flee if they feel they are in danger.

    Pig Anti-Predator Behavior

    Pigs belong to the scientific genus known as Suidae, a group of hoofed mammals commonly referred to as pigs, hogs, or boars, who appeared on Earth sometime between 20-35 million years ago! The wild boar (Sus scrofa) is the living wild ancestor of the modern domesticated pig (Sus scrofa domesticus). Both wild boars and domesticated pigs are socially complex beings that usually prefer to live in environments with lots of shrubbery, trees, tall grass, and easy access to water. However, they can live and thrive in a vast array of habitats ranging from tropical islands to boreal taigas, grasslands, mountainous regions, and even deserts! 

    Sometimes vigilance, or perhaps more appropriately prey apprehension, in pigs may be referred to as “gazing”. This simply refers to them standing still with their head up and staring out. Other behaviors include habitat selection and alarm calls, running away, or fighting, depending on the individual and the situation. If they have tusks they may charge and use them to fight off the threat.

    Rabbit Anti-Predator Behavior

    Earlier in the resource we discussed certain aspects of rabbit anti-predator behaviors to illustrate specific types of anti-predator behaviors. Depending on the situation, rabbits may freeze, flee, or fight! Generally speaking, rabbits will freeze or flee if they detect a predator. But backed into a corner, some rabbits will fight by biting, kicking, and scratching. They will also thump a back foot against the ground in some cases though this can also be related to annoyance. They are letting others know they want them to get away from them or they are unhappy with something.  

    Sheep Anti-Predator Behavior

    While sheep and goats share some characteristics, sheep are generally more likely to take flight if a predator is detected. However, ewes have been known to charge some potential predators to protect their lambs. If sheep detect a predator they may snort, sound an alarm call, step toward the predator and stomp the ground, and/or bow their head. These signals communicate to their companions that a threat is near. These behaviors also signal to the predator that they have been spotted so they won’t be able to sneak up on them unawares. This may deter the predator as the expenditure of energy it takes to catch someone is less likely to be successful once they have been spotted. Sheep that are spread out a bit often flock together. There is safety in numbers! 

    Turkey Anti-predator Behavior

    While there isn’t a lot of information about the anti-predator behaviors of domesticated turkeys, there is quite a bit of information on wild turkeys. When exposed to predators in a specific area, turkeys will often select different habitats to avoid danger. Depending on whether the threat is aerial or on the ground, a turkey may crouch and hide or freeze or call an alarm and run or fly away. According to one study, it has been observed that wild hatchlings may have evolved to recognize the alert call from songbirds and practice vigilance and prey apprehension in response to this. Turkeys may also run and take cover if a predator is near.

    We hope this introduction to anti-predator behaviors will help you develop positive relationships with residents by gaining a better understanding of their boundaries. Knowing these will allow staff and volunteers to respect the personal space of individuals and learn how to tailor their approach for successful interactions with residents. We recommend checking out our “What Is A Resident’s Flight Zone?” resource next!


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    Non-Compassionate Source?
    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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