Researchers work on solutions
By Jonathan Martin
As farmers transition to alternative hen housing, researchers from the University of Guelph are looking into the prominence of feather pecking in the new environments.
In conventional cages, hens often nip at each other’s feathers, damaging feather cover and making it difficult for a bird to regulate its body temperature and maneuver around its environment. Missing feathers also mark hens as targets for further attacks. Feather pecking occurs in all type of chicken enclosures, from conventional cages, to free-run facilities, to free-range farms.
The researchers’ work revealed that 22 per cent of birds suffered “moderate or severe” feather damage from pecking in the new, enriched housing. This type of housing will be standard, along with free-run aviaries and free-range farms, by 2036, Egg Farmers of Canada said.
The study’s lead researcher, Nienke Vaan Staaveren, wants to help farmers who are making the transition between housing types develop tools to manage feather pecking in the new environments, she told Farms.com.
“The earlier you can intervene, the better,” she said. “In terms of specific factors, it will depend on the flock, but the importance of providing foraging opportunities is consistently highlighted in the research, so that is a good start.”
Chickens are driven to forage by instinct, so they’ll look for something to peck if their enclosure has no substrate, Vaan Staaveren said. Sometimes, they find other chickens to be an attractive alternative.
Midnight feedings lead to higher rates of feather pecking, too, the scientists found. Flipping on an enclosure’s lights at night may lead to an increase in calcium consumption, but sleepy chickens make good targets for their wakeful roommates.
Often, the reasons chickens begin pecking at each other are interlinked with the fowl’s genetics and magnified by the birds’ stress or frustration.
“As there are individual variations between birds, there is no real one-solution-fits-all and all flocks respond differently” to management practices, Vaan Staaveren said. “The most effective way to approach feather pecking is to try and address as many of the risk factors (as possible) at the same time and try to minimize any stress the birds may experience.”