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Plumage damage in free-range laying hens: behavioural characteristics in the rearing period and the effects of environmental enrichment and beak-trimming

By K. M. Hartcher, M. K. T. N. Tran, S. J. Wilkinson, P. H. Hemsworth, P. C. Thomson, G. M. Cronin

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Severe feather-pecking, whereby birds peck at and pull out the feathers of other birds, is one of the greatest welfare concerns and the most prevalent behavioural problem in laying hens. It can be extremely difficult to control, especially in non-cage laying flocks. Despite a multitude of studies on the topic, the principal underlying causes remain unclear and not much is known about why certain birds are affected more than others. Literature suggests that rearing is an important period for the development of behaviours later in life. Although severe feather-pecking is not usually a welfare concern in the rearing period, behavioural tests when performed early in life may be predictive of plumage damage due to severe feather-pecking in adulthood. This experiment aimed to investigate whether behavioural tests during the rearing period could be predictive of plumage damage later in life. Sixteen pens of 50 ISA Brown laying hens were used, with four birds per pen selected at random as focal birds. Focal birds were subjected to behavioural tests during the rearing period including the open-field test, tonic immobility test and tests for a novel food reward. Two treatments, beak-trimming and environmental enrichment, were applied in a 2*2 factorial arrangement in rearing. The non-trimmed birds vocalised more ( P=0.02, 91.5 vs. 83.6%) and at louder volumes ( P=0.02, 71.4 vs. 47.0% of vocalisations categorised as loud rather than soft or silent) in the open-field test at 5 weeks of age. There was no difference between treatments in duration of tonic immobility ( P=0.99). Non-trimmed birds exhibited more plumage damage at 43 weeks of age ( P 0.1). Thus while beak-trimmed birds made fewer vocalisations in an open-field test and had less plumage damage in adulthood as expected, there is no evidence that reactions to the behavioural tests were predictive of plumage damage. Instead, results indicate that environmental enrichment affected bird behaviour during the rearing period but did not affect plumage damage due to severe feather-pecking later in life. The test responses including more vocalisations in the open-field test, but no difference in the tonic immobility responses, indicate that the differences may be due to motivation for social reinstatement rather than fearfulness.

Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 164
Pages 64-72
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
Publisher Elsevier
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.12.011
Language English
Author Address Poultry Research Foundation, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, 425 Werombi Road, Camden, NSW 2570,
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animals
  3. Animal welfare
  4. Birds
  5. Diseases and injuries of animals
  6. Effect
  7. Egg production
  8. Enrichment
  9. Fear
  10. Feathers
  11. Flocks
  12. Fowls
  13. Hens
  14. Interactions
  15. peer-reviewed
  16. pens
  17. plumage
  18. Poultry
  19. Research
  20. vertebrates
  21. Wounds and injuries
  1. peer-reviewed