Perseveration in a guessing task by laying hens selected for high or low levels of feather pecking does not support classification of feather pecking as a stereotypy

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Joergen Brockmann Kjaer, Hanno Würbel, Lars Schrader
Applied Animal Behaviour Science
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Feather pecking is a behaviour by which birds damage or destroy the feathers of themselves (self-pecking) or other birds (allo feather pecking), in some cases even plucking out feathers and eating these. The self-pecking is rarely seen in domestic laying hens but is not uncommon in parrots. Feather pecking in laying hens has been described as being stereotypic, i.e. a repetitive invariant motor pattern without an obvious function, and indeed the amount of self-pecking in parrots was found to correlate positively with the amount of recurrent perseveration (RP), the tendency to repeat responses inappropriately, which in humans and other animals was found to correlate with stereotypic behaviour. In the present experiment we set out to investigate the correlation between allo feather pecking and RP in laying hens. We used birds (N = 92) from the 10th and 11th generation (G10 and G11) of lines selectively bred for high feather pecking (HFP) and low feather pecking (LFP), and from an unselected control line (CON) with intermediate levels of feather pecking. We hypothesised that levels of RP would be higher, and the time taken (standardised latency) to repeat a response lower, in HFP compared to LFP hens, with CON hens in between. Using a two-choice guessing task, we found that lines differed significantly in their levels of RP, with HFP unexpectedly showing lower levels of RP than CON and LFP. Latency to make a repeat did not differ between lines. Latency to make a switch differed between lines with a shorter latency in HFP compared to LFP (in G10), or CON (in G11). Latency to peck for repeats vs. latency to peck for switches did not differ between lines. Total time to complete the test was significantly shorter in HFP compared to CON and LFP. Thus, our hypotheses were not supported by the data. In contrast, selection for feather pecking seems to induce the opposite effects than would be expected from stereotyping animals: pecking was less sequenced and reaction to make a switch and to complete the test was lower in HFP. This supports the hyperactivity-model of feather pecking, suggesting that feather pecking is related to a higher general activity, possibly due to changes in the dopaminergic system.


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