A simple and low-cost method of ‘listening’ to chicks may allow welfare issues to be picked up at the earliest possible opportunity, according to new research.
In commercial chicken farming, thousands of newly-hatched chicks are reared in batches. A team of animal welfare and behaviour scientists from across the UK collected acoustic recordings in 12 typical such flocks of 25,000 chicks.
In nature, when uncomfortable or uncertain of their surroundings, chicks would attract the hen with a loud and distinctive distress call.
In this study, the researchers demonstrated that these calls could be clearly picked up above other noises such as regular calling and farm machinery.
But where previous research has linked distress calling to stress and anxiety-like states in chicks, this study also shows it could predict flock-level behaviour, future growth and mortality rate.
That suggests distress calling may be an ‘iceberg indicator’ – a single measure that captures a range of welfare information at once.
The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, involved researchers from the University of Plymouth, University of Roehampton, SRUC, and Newcastle University. It was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in an Innovate UK partnership with Greengage Lighting Ltd.