2013 - 2018

Development of flight and locomotion in laying hens

Principal Investigator: Alexandra Harlander-Matauschek, University of Guelph
Co-investigator: Tina Widowski, University of Guelph; Hanno Wuerbel, University of Bern, Switzerland
Status: Completed


To investigate the development of locomotion in the air and on the ground in pullets and laying hens, the birds’ preferences for flying and walking, and the significance of this knowledge for the proper rearing and housing of pullets and laying hens in aviary systems.


Under natural conditions, domestic fowl spend 70% of their active time foraging by walking on the ground.  Their flight abilities are limited, and domestic hens seek elevated refuges only when threatened or roosting.  For roosting, they fly up to the lowest branch of a tree, and make their way up by flying branch by branch.  They descend flying directly onto the ground.  Hens use their wings only for brief escape flights, although hens can outrun predators.  In outside runs, these bipedal ground birds run and flap their wings simultaneously Birds are unable to perform species specific behaviour, such as the freedom of locomotion in cages.  In response to this consumer criticism and pressure, the non-cage sector of Canadian egg-production industry is expected to grow.  Alternatives to cage systems are single-tier or multi-tier (aviaries) systems.  While aviaries or perches provide freedom of locomotion, this is associated with an increased risk of bone fractures. The risk of collision during flying or jumping is increased by increased mobility.  Keel bone breakages are more prevalent in non-cage systems; with the incidence of keel fractures in non-cage systems ranging from 52% to 80%.  Not only are such fractures likely to be painful, they compromise the birds’ mobility.  This raises the question whether birds kept in alternative housing systems may be overtaxed in their locomotion skills (on ground and in the air). No science based information about locomotor skills on the ground and in the air, the laying hens preferences for flying and walking and the significance of this information for the proper rearing of pullets and housing of laying hens in non-cage systems exists. This project aims at addressing the locomotive development and skills of pullets and laying hens, and to assess differences in them across strain so that converting to non-cage systems in Canada results in the desired improvement of hen welfare in practice.


$200,120 (AAFC/CPRC $160,120*, Egg Farmers of Canada $40,000)


*This research was part of the Poultry Science Cluster 2 which was supported by AAFC as part of Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

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