Listening to chickens could improve production

by Editor
Monday, May 21, 2012

Researchers now believe that avian expressiveness may be more than idle chatter. A collaborative project being conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia is investigating whether the birds' volubility can provide clues to how healthy and comfortable they are.

And that could be valuable information. Economically, chickens rule the roost in Georgia, where poultry is the top agricultural product with an estimated annual impact of nearly $20 billion statewide. There is industry concern about the welfare of the animals they raise.

Many poultry professionals swore they could walk into a grow-out house and tell whether a flock was happy or stressed just by listening to the birds vocalise, Wayne Daley, a Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) principal research scientist who is leading the research, said. The trouble was, it had proved hard for these pros to pinpoint exactly what it is that they were hearing.

Nevertheless, scientists are convinced that poultry farmers are detecting something real. Recent research at the University of Connecticut's Department of Animal Science indicates that it is indeed possible to differentiate how the birds react to various conditions based on their vocalisations.

So the Georgia Tech/University of Georgia team is working to identify and extract specific vocalisation features that will bear out both the anecdotal observations and the previous scientific work. The researchers are performing stress-related experiments on small flocks, recording the birds' reactions on audio and video and analysing the results.

Naturally, said Daley, the poultry industry already has well-established guidelines covering optimal temperature, air quality and stocking density. Nevertheless, costly problems can still crop up - control systems can malfunction, or presumably ideal levels can turn out to be problematic.

The research team has conducted several experiments in which they have exposed flocks to mildly stressful environmental changes. For example, temperature or ammonia levels might be increased from their initial settings for a few hours, then returned to the original level.

The researchers have recorded the flocks' vocal reactions to the experiments, with video also collected in many instances. To date, more than four terabytes of bird-vocalisation audio has been gathered.

In addition to ensuring high yield flocks, bird-vocalisation analysis could save poultry growers money in equipment costs as well, Anderson suggested. For instance, he said, currently available ammonia sensors are both expensive and short-lived. If a system consisting of a few microphones and the right computer algorithms could take over ammonia-detection tasks, it would help reduce costs for the entire industry.