Be the chicken
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Imagine this: you feel really motivated to do something, sit down let's say. You have this overwhelming urge to do it. It's necessary, you need to do it. But there's no place to sit nearby. You try anyways, you have to. There's a crowded bench but when you try to sit you get kicked off. The motivation doesn't go away so maybe you try to do something else to take your mind off of sitting. You get something to eat or drink, anything. But the urge is still there, impossible to satiate by anything else. You may get a temporary reprieve but the motivation returns, even stronger. You are getting frustrated, so you might try to grab someone's chair. Finally, when you haven't been able to find a seat for long enough and the motivation reaches a tipping point, you settle and just find any old spot on the ground to sit.
So what does this have to do with chickens? What I have just described is similar to the overwhelming motivation a chicken feels when they are trying to find a nest. The drive to find a nest is internally motivated, so hens will express nest seeking behaviour and try to find a suitable spot no matter what environment they are in. In some housing systems, like traditional cages, there are no nests provided so the chicken would need to settle for a spot on the floor to lay her egg. Furnished cages are supposed to solve this problem by providing a curtained nesting area. But do they?
My PhD research focused on how hens responded to those nests in furnished cages and what we could do to make them better. I tried to get into the mind of the chickens to see the space like they do (or as my Dad says, be the chicken). Since I couldn't possibly know what it was like to be a chicken, I had to find other ways to understand their experience and how they perceive their surroundings.
First I focused on the eggs. I looked at where they were laid to see whether hens actually chose to use the nest. The time of egg laying told me whether they were delayed or the number of birds that were trying to lay eggs at once. I tried to get a sense of how busy the nest was and whether there was enough space. I also looked at their behaviour. Were the birds settled and calm? This is what I would expect if there was enough nest space and they were designed appropriately. Or were the birds agitated, restless or aggressive? That would tell me that the hens couldn't find what they were looking for or they were inadequate in some way.
To actually figure out what might have been missing from the nest design I ran some tests. I changed the design of the nests and varied them by a single factor to narrow down what influenced birds to choose one area over another. I looked at their behaviour again: where they chose to lay, what time, and were they calm or agitated.
I found that not all hens look for the same thing in a nest. Some prefer the most enclosed area, some prefer a different type of surface. Of the two factors, enclosure seemed to be more influential. It may also be important to provide different types of nests so that hens can choose what they prefer. No matter what kind of nest you provide, some hens are just going to go rogue and lay their eggs wherever they please.
I also found that some well-used areas were not necessarily designed to be nests. When there is an alternative available, some birds will change their behaviour and adapt their laying location. Even the addition of a simple wire partition was enough to make an otherwise uninteresting area into a type of semi-enclosed nest.
When I describe my PhD thesis to people, I sometimes say that I was like a chicken architect -- I observed how chickens interacted with their space and tried to find ways to design it better. This made me reflect on how much of an impact we can have when seemingly random design quirks have the potential to significantly influence an animal's experience. So when we design environments for animals, we have a lot of power. Whether it be in zoos, farms, research labs, or homes, the places in which animals live profoundly impacts their welfare. Designing those environments with the animal in mind -- their behaviour, mental capacity, and physiology -- is one way to ensure an animal has a good life. We can start to do that by seeing the environment from the perspective of the animal ... or be(ing) the chicken.
Epilogue: I actually wrote this piece in 2016 as I was preparing to defend my PhD thesis at the University of Guelph. It seemed like a good exercise to really distill down what my project was all about. I recently found the piece in an old notebook and thought it would be worth sharing!
Interested in reading more?
You can find my PhD thesis here
Most chapters have also been published and can be found here