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Research: What makes chickens happy?

How do you know whether your birds are happy? Is it a case of looking to see how much time they spend preening or the way they run for their food?

Researchers from the University of Guelph in Canada are looking to measure a chicken’s happiness by putting 16 breeds through physical fitness and behavioural tests.

They are watching how well birds scramble over a barrier for food, how excited they become when they play with a fake worm and are tracking traits like weight, growth rate and meat quality which they hope will be useful to the industry.

Poultry breeding companies Cobb, which is owned by Tyson Foods and Aviagen, are providing birds for the study, including breeds that are widely used.

Lead researcher Stephanie Torrey said if we can provide birds with opportunities to perform things that they perhaps find pleasurable then maybe that can counter balance the negative aspects.”

But scientists know that happy birds could end up being expensive ones, so they are also monitoring which breeds grow more efficiently.

“Our ultimate goal is to find breeds that have good welfare but also good productivity and good disease resistance within our environments here.”

They hope their study will lead to a better understanding of chicken happiness.

The Guelph study is being funded by the Global Animal Partnership, which certifies corporate animal welfare standards. In 2016 it launched a campaign to encourage companies to switch to slower growing breeds.

Since then, it has acknowledged that chicken welfare is more complicated than just growth rate and is now pushing for a “better chicken” and hopes the study will help define what that entails.

Anne Malleau, the group’s executive director, said some of the researchers’ tests may seem far out, but added that until relatively recently enrichments were seen as a fringe idea.