Encouraging chick play could improve broiler welfare

Play behaviors in young chickens could help control how broilers react to stress as adults, revealed new research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Young chickens spend lots of time playing in different ways – just like puppies and kittens – according to research from Linköping University. (Per Jensen)
Young chickens spend lots of time playing in different ways – just like puppies and kittens – according to research from Linköping University. (Per Jensen)

Play behaviors in young chickens could help control how broilers react to stress as adults, revealed new research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Play may potentially be a really important means of improving the welfare of chickens and other farm animals,” explained Per Jensen, professor at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology at Linköping University (LiU), Sweden.

“Strangely, chick play has not received much research interest earlier, and you can even come across people believing that they do not play at all. However, our results show that they definitely do so if given the opportunity.”

Transitions in housing and feed, aggression or social stress within the flock, handling and heat stress are all unavoidable stressors for birds in commercial poultry farms. Encouraging play could help mitigate stress-related behaviors and improve broiler welfare.

Chicks are motivated to play

During the study, researchers filmed the behaviors of young chickens given access to a ‘special playground’ several times a week.

The researchers identified 14 different kinds of chick play, including “play fighting” where the young chickens jumped and bumped their chests against one another. The intensity of play behavior reached its peak around 6-7 weeks of age.

When compared to the play behaviors of wild Red Junglefowl, the researchers found that modern, domesticated chickens played in the same way.

“In fact, they play more than Red Junglefowl, so the motivation has even increased during the domestication process. This may be an important need to cater for in commercial rearing,” Jensen added.

Additional research examined young chickens that experienced stress during hatching. These chicks were more likely to exhibit play behaviors, suggesting that play could help improve welfare.

“We hope to investigate this in coming projects. The hypothesis is that by improving cognitive skills through play, their ability to handle and cope with various challenges later in life will be improved,” said Jensen.

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