Schwarzer, A., Erhard, M., Schmidt, P. et al. 2022. Effects of stocking rate and environmental enrichment on the ontogeny of pecking behavior of laying hen pullets confined in aviary compartments during the first 4 weeks of life. Animals 12(19), 2639.
The objective of this study was to describe the ontogeny of the severe feather pecking (SFP), gentle feather pecking (GFP), aggressive pecking (AP), and enrichment pecking (EP) of non-beak-trimmed Lohmann Brown (LB)-pullets during the first 4 weeks of life (observation on 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd, and 29th days of life) while they were kept within the compartments of a commercial rearing aviary (without access to a litter area). All chicks were placed into compartments of the middle tier of the aviary on the 1st day of life. On the 10th day of life, half of the chicks of each compartment were moved into the compartments of the lower tier. The aviary floor was covered with chick paper before the placement of the chicks and fully or partially removed from the 15th day of life onwards. The pecking behavior patterns were observed in three experimental groups (EG): NE (not enriched): group size until/after 10th day of life: 230/115; 120.8/60.4 birds/m2, no enrichment; EL (enriched, low stocking rate): group size until/after 10th day of life: 203/101, 106.6/53.6 birds/m2; and EH (enriched, high stocking rate): group size until/after 10th day of life: 230/115;120.8/60.4 birds/m2, both pecking stones and blocks as enrichment) in two rearing periods. For each pecking behavior pattern, an independent regression model with the parameters EG, chick paper, observation day, and functional area was estimated. GFP, SFP, and EP increased with age during the observation. The AP rate was highest in all EGs on the first day of life and decreased during the observation period. A pairwise comparison of NE (high stocking rate without enrichment) with EH (high stocking rate with enrichment and with EL (low stocking rate with enrichment) showed a significant effect of the EG on pecking behavior, with more SFP, AP, and GFP in NE. There were no differences between EL and EH, indicating that the provision of pecking materials had more influence than the stocking rate. However, we presumed that the difference between the stocking rates were too small to observe an effect. AP, SFP, and GFP were significantly higher on wired slats, as compared to the perches and the vicinity of the enrichment materials. The enrichment materials were suitable and intensely used by the pullets. The provision of pecking blocks and pecking stones was recommended as a preventive measure from the first day of life onwards for pullets housed in commercial rearing aviaries. There was no effect of reduced stocking rate, most likely due to the low variation in stocking rates.