On May 22nd, 2017 we learned about

Laser-sensors enable analysis of the daily activities of free-range chickens

More and more commercially raised chickens are able to stretch their legs and wander around cage-free environments these days, but what do they do with all that freedom? Some clearly wander outside, some stay indoors, but for a farmer trying to manage as many as 15,000 birds, keeping track of individual habits and preferences has been more or less impossible. Fortunately, the era of Big Data no longer excludes chickens from constant tracking and monitoring, and so researchers are starting to dig through patterns about what chickens do with themselves that can lead to everything from broken bones to brain growth.

Monitoring chickens’ movements

To track the chickens around their open barn and yard, researchers from the University of Bern obviously couldn’t hand out smartphones with GPS enabled, because the data plans were too expensive. That and the whole “no thumbs, no pockets, signal-blocking metal barn” thing. So to track a subset of birds, special ankle-mounted trackers were worn by some birds, each with some internal memory and infrared (IR) laser sensors. IR laser emitters were then mounted at key junctions of the chickens’ barn and yard, so that when a bird walked by, the laser would hit the sensor, telling it to log a visit a specific location at a specific time. All of these moments past these laser tripwires were then put together, revealing the movement patterns of individual birds.

Just like us, each tracked chicken seemed to have its own quirks and preferences. Instead of the whole flock moving together, or each chicken following a matching routine, they all had their own internal schedules for their days. Some preferred to be outdoors a lot, while others never left the barn. Some tended to stick to one area in the barn, while others preferred the other side. It’s not shocking by any means, but it hints at the inner life and choices going on in these animals’ brains. It will hopefully also help researchers and farms figure out which habits lead to healthier, happier lives so they can promote them with the rest of the flock.

Tying activities to hurt or happiness?

A lot of free-range birds have been found to have bone fractures, with 86 percent of commercial chickens showing damage to their keel bone specifically. The keel bone is the large, blade-shaped bone that sits on a chicken’s chest, and serves as an attachment point for wing muscles. It’s thought that these injuries are just from flapping and jumping around the perches in the barns, but if a pattern can be found between activities and injuries, it may save the birds some pain. Researchers also want to figure out how severely these injuries affect the chickens’ well-being— does a small fracture seem to hinder activity, or do the chickens walk it off?

On the brighter side of the equation, researchers also want to look at which birds might just be happier. At this point, there are some signs that the chickens that spend more time outdoors have healthier bones, lungs and even show more cell growth in their hippocampus. In rodents, a lack of brain-cell growth has been linked to depression, so there’s a good chance that these chickens are a least feeling somewhat content with their lives. For the farmers, healthier, happier chickens should need less intervention, plus may lay more eggs, adding a financial incentive to all this. To really be sure, this first round of study will be scaled up, with more comparisons made between activity, injury and egg production.

Source: Scientists tracked chickens and found they have their own daily routines, just like us by Sarah Fecht, Popular Science

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