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Date Answered: 3/17/2014
Do cows howl at the moon? My cat and my fiddle are interested in researching further cow behaviors.
Dear Little Dog Laughed,

Hey diddle diddle! QB was so excited to get your ponderous question. The nighttime ululations of cattle have long been on QBís radar, as QB is sure they have been for most people. In order to get the dish on such sport, QB ran away with some science databases to see what information they could spoon out on research about cow noises.

Of course, we most often associate howling at the moon with the behavior of wolves, so QB looked in the Biological Abstracts database to see what information they had about howling at the moon among the cowís canine compatriots. QB discovered in a recent article, "Wolf Howling Is Mediated By Relationship Quality Rather Than Underlying Emotional Stress," that wolf howls are more often used to communicate with and locate other wolves with which the howler has a relationship than in response to any environmental factors, like the moon. QB then wondered what kind of information had been studied about the vocalizations of cows.

Another search in that database brought up an enlightening article, "Vocal Behaviour in Cattle: The Animalís Commentary on Its Biological Processes and Welfare." Chock-full of information about the sounds our bovine friends make, this article revealed that cows are actually among the least vocal of domestic animals, and that their vocalizations are generally within the 50-1250 Hz range, giving them a slightly wider range than the commonly associated "moo." A similar article, "Acoustic Features of Vocalizations of Korean Native Cows (Bos taurus coreanea) in Two Different Conditions" found that cows in estrus produce lower, harsher sounds (roars) than cows anticipating feeding. Howls, however, do not appear to be a part of most cowsí repertoire, from these searches. It looks like cows vocalize to assert their identity to a group, communicate readiness for reproduction, and to express pain, isolation, or need for resources, not to speak to satellites.

To QBís mind, though, the most common association between the bovine and the lunar is that well-known referent, "Hey Diddle Diddle." In order to find out more about this rhyme, QB looked in the library catalog and found that The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes might be a good place to look. Itís not available online, so QB took a trek to the Center for Childrenís Books, whose Storytelling Collection is the campus hub for resources on folktales, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes. (Copies of this dictionary are also in the Main Stacks, Oak Street, and SSHEL, though.) A quick peek into this resource found that there are lots of opinions about the origins of this rhyme, which first appeared in print circa 1765, including that it refers to constellations, the exploits of Elizabeth, Lady Katherine Grey, and the Earls of Herford and Leicester, or the cat (a game of trap-ball) and fiddle (music) often found at pubs. QBís belief would tend toward the latter--it seems a cow jumping over (or howling) at the moon would be more likely to be seen after one too many drinks--but the best guess (that itís just nonsense) comes from Sir Henry Reid: "It commemorates the athletic lunacy to which the strange conspiracy of the cat and the fiddle incited the cow." Perhaps your feline and viol compatriots could also incite howling?

Finally, if you, your cat, and your fiddle are interested in further research in cow behavior, there are lots of available resources QB can suggest. The libraryís e-reference sources--easily accessed on the library website--include such reputable sources as Grzimekís Animal Life Encyclopedia. Another option would be to search books using the library catalog: a smart search tip would to search by Subject using the Library of Congress Subject Heading "Cattle--Behavior." Science databases like Biological Abstracts can also be a nice place to turn if you're heading the peer-reviewed route. Using these resources, QB found such interesting facts as:
- Cows were first domesticated between 8000 and 9000 years ago in southwest Asia or southeast Europe.
-Though they canít produce very high-frequency sounds, cows can hear at much higher pitches than humans can, which helps, among other things, avoid vampire bat attacks.
- Ninety percent of the worldís milk comes from various breeds of cow.

Happy cow-rific searching!

Sportingly yours,

Source(s) Used to Answer Question:
Mazzini, F., S.W. Townsend, Z. Viranyi, & F. Range. (2013). Wolf howling is mediated by relationship quality rather than underlying emotional stress. Current Biology, 23(17), 1677-1680. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.066.

Watts, J. M., & J.M. Stookey. (2000). Vocal behavior in cattle: the animal's commentary on its biolgoical processes and welfare. Applied Animal Behavior, 67(1-2), 15-33. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0168-1591(99)00108-2.

Yeon, S.C., J.H. Jeon, K.A. Houpt, H.H. Chang, H.C. Lee,& H.J. Lee. (2006). Acoustic features of vocalizations of Korean native cows (Bos taurus coreanea) in two different conditions. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 101(1-2), 1-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2006.01.013

Opie, I. A. & P. Opie. (Eds.). (1951). Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Antelopes, cattle, bison, buffaloes, goats, and sheep (Bovidae). (2005). In Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3406700961&v=2.1&u=uiuc_uc&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w&asid=a9bdfb4dd0b8d992914fb67bffc36b6f.