Buijs, S., Booth, F., Richards, G. et al. 2018. Behavioural and physiological responses of laying hens to automated monitoring equipment. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 199, 17-23.

Automated monitoring of behaviour can offer a wealth of information in circumstances where observing behaviour is difficult or time consuming. However, this often requires attaching monitoring devices to the animal which can alter behaviour, potentially invalidating any data collected. Birds often show increased preening and energy expenditure when wearing devices and, especially in laying hens, there is a risk that individuals wearing devices will attract aggression from conspecifics. We studied the behavioural and physiological response of 20 laying hens to backpacks containing monitoring devices fastened with elastic loops around the wing base. We hypothesised that backpacks would lead to a stress-induced decrease in peripheral temperature, increased preening, more aggression from conspecifics, and reduced bodyweights. This was evaluated by thermography of the eye and comb (when isolated after fitting backpacks), direct observations of behaviour (when isolated, when placed back into the group, and on later days), and weighing (before and after each 7-day experimental period). Each hen wore a backpack during one of the two experimental periods only and was used as her own control. Contrary to our hypothesis, eye temperature was higher when hens wore a backpack (No backpack: 30.2°C (IQR: 29.0–30.6) vs. Backpack: 30.9°C (IQR: 30.0–32.0), P<0.001). Eye temperature of hens wearing a backpack was strongly correlated to the time spent preening (rs=0.8, P<0.001), suggesting that the higher temperatures may have been due to preening itself, or to a low head position or decreased heat dissipation when preening under the wings. Aggressive behaviour was very rare and no effect of the backpacks was found. In line with our hypothesis, backpacks increased preening on the day of fitting, both when isolated (No backpack: 0% (IQR: 0–1) vs. Backpack: 22% (IQR: 1–43), P<0.01) and when back in the group (No backpack: 0% (IQR: 0–27) vs. Backpack: 43% (IQR: 5–77), P<0.001). However, no effect on preening was observed 2–7days afterwards. Other behavioural changes suggested that on the day of fitting hens prioritized attempts to (re)move the backpack and were less attentive to their surroundings. However, only equipment pecking (i.e., pecking the backpack or leg rings) was still affected 2–7days after fitting (No backpack: 0 pecks/hen/minute (IQR: 0–0), vs. Backpack: 0 (IQR: 0–0.07), P<0.05). We found no effect of our backpacks on bodyweight. In conclusion, our backpacks seem suitable to attach monitoring equipment to hens with only a very minor effect on their behaviour after a short acclimation period (≤2days).

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