Research at the University of New England into the free-range egg production system is taking a closer look at how chickens’ moods are connected to their desire to spend time outdoors.
Professor Geoff Hich from the UNE is leading research into new approaches on how we can assess the welfare of chickens, including measuring their emotional state, and motivational and behavioural tendencies.
Researchers will use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to identify hens that proportionally spend more time either indoors or outdoors.
Physiological and behavioural differences in the birds can then be examined.
Dr Hinch said part of the study involved determining the birds’ emotional welfare by examining their choices and whether they were optimistic or pessimistic.
“If a bird is feeling good about itself and it has to make a choice, it will usually err on the side of an optimistic choice,” he said.
“If a bird is feeling bad about itself, it’s more likely to make a pessimistic choice.
“So we set up a situation where birds have to make a choice and see if they make an optimistic or pessimistic choice.”
The project has been running for six months and currently includes 50 chickens.
A study released last week by Jeff Downing from the University of Sydney claimed that free-range chickens are not necessarily less stressed than their caged counterparts but Dr Hinch said this research was flawed.
The study, funded by the Australian Egg Corporation, measured levels of the stress hormone, corticosterone, in chickens on 12 farms using free range, barn or caged production systems. Dr Downing claims his results found that individual environmental factors are more likely to effect chickens’ stress levels than their production system.
Dr Hinch said the study did not take into account enough measurements of welfare for its findings to be conclusive.
“If the results are based purely on corticosterone measurements, I’m not sure I can take the study as an accurate result,” he said.