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Feather pecking in poultry: the application of science in a search for practical solutions

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Abstract:

Traditional battery cages for laying hens will soon be banned in the EU but the increased risk of feather pecking (FP) hampers the adoption of alternative housing systems. FP can cause injury and lead to cannibalism and the painful death of target birds. Current management practices (beak trimming, low light) have associated problems. In a joint European project we sought alternative solutions. In our study of associated traits, birds from a line showing low (LFP) rather than high feather pecking (HFP) exhibited greater sociality (motivation to be near companions) and a passive 'coping' style. High sociality and passivity were also negatively associated with FP in adults. These findings may guide future breeding programs. Trimming hens' feathers to mimic the results of FP elicited pecking and some cannibalism, even by birds that had previously shown no FP. Social transmission of gentle but not severe FP occurred when LFP and HFP birds were housed together. Gentle pecking could conceivably lead to severe FP. We then examined chickens' pecking preferences to guide environmental enrichment strategies. Bunches of string elicited substantially greater interest than other stimuli, including feathers, and white or yellow string was the most attractive. The birds' manipulation of the string resembled preening. Incorporating silver beads or moving the devices reduced pecking. String sustained lengthy interest, reduced FP in HFP birds, and decreased feather damage in caged layers on a commercial farm. String offers effective, affordable and practicable environmental enrichment. The integrated application of appropriate environmental and genetic strategies is likely to attenuate the expression of FP and its harmful consequences.

Keywords: ANIMAL WELFARE; BEHAVIOURAL TRAITS; DOMESTIC FOWL; ENVIRONMENTAL ENRICHMENT; FEATHER PECKING; POULTRY

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2004

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