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The effects of operant control over food and light on the behaviour of domestic hens

By P. E. Taylor, N. C. A. Coerse, M. Haskell

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In intensive farming systems, the animals have little control over important elements in their environments. For instance, food of a pre-set type is delivered at set times, and the lighting schedule is controlled by the farmer. It has been suggested that low levels of environmental control over important events may reduce welfare by increasing passivity and stress. This study aimed to evaluate the effect of providing control over food and lighting additional to a restricted regime on the behaviour of small groups of laying hens (Gallus gallus domesticus). Twelve pens, each containing 5 birds, were paired to give six controlling and six non-controlling pens. These pairs of pens were yoked, such that birds in the controlling pens were able to make an operant response to gain access to extra food and light, whilst the yoked pens also received these outcomes but were unable to control their occurrence. The birds were kept continuously in the experimental conditions for 9 weeks. Records were made of general behaviour and activity, aggression and plumage damage scores, every 2 weeks. Data on key-pecking and egg production were continuously recorded throughout the experiment. The controlling birds used the operant keys to open the feeder for an average of 92 min and to turn on the light for 46 min per pen per day. The high number of key-pecks indicates that the birds were motivated to make use of the keys to control access to additional food and light. The non-controlling treatment pens showed significantly higher levels of preening and resting. Contrary to previous studies the use of operant feeders in this experiment did not induce a high level of feather pecking or aggressive interactions, as there was no significant difference between treatments. During the experiment the non-controlling hens laid significantly more eggs than the controlling hens. The results suggest that lack of control over these particular environmental events induced mild stress in the non-controlling pens of birds, and that further investigations into the effect of lack of control on welfare would be warranted.

Date 2001
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 71
Issue 4
Pages 319-333
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/S0168-1591(00)00182-9
Language English
Author Address I.E.R.M., University of Edinburgh, West Mains Road, EH9 5JG, Edinburgh, UK.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Aggression
  2. Animal behavior
  3. Animal husbandry
  4. Animal nutrition
  5. Animal rights
  6. Animal welfare
  7. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  8. Birds
  9. Chickens
  10. Damage
  11. Egg production
  12. Environment
  13. Feathers
  14. Foods
  15. Fowls
  16. Hens
  17. Intensive farming
  18. Light
  19. peer-reviewed
  20. physical activity
  21. plumage
  22. Poultry
  23. rest
  24. Stress
  1. peer-reviewed