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Free-range chickens need trees

(Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Helen Pearson, Nature, 08/07/03: What made the free-range chicken cross the road? Trees, say British researchers who are trying to coax timid poultry into the farmyard.

In the European Union, chickens and their eggs are labeled as free-range if the birds enjoy access to the outdoors for at least eight hours a day. But while shoppers assume that their bird was once happily al fresco, farmers know that they rarely venture out of the barn.

The retiring chucks may be pining for the forest, says Marian Dawkins of the University of Oxford, UK, and her team. By taking regular photos at commercial broiler farms in Lincolnshire, they confirmed that only of 15% of hens ever poke their beaks outside at any given time1.

Yards shaded by trees are most likely to tempt the chickens out. In 40 paddocks holding 20,000 animals, birds huddled under the protection of foliage.

The researchers suggest that domestic poultry may share a preference for trees with their wild ancestor the red jungle fowl, which shelters in Asian bamboo forests. For modern broilers, trees may offer shade, protection from predatory crows and a windbreak.

Dawkins is keen to emphasize that free-range chickens' agoraphobia is no reason to revert to battery farming - especially if researchers can figure out how best to entice them out. "It's our fault for not thinking of it from the bird's point of view," she says.


# Dawkins, M. S., Cook, P. A., Whittingham, M. J., Mansell, K. A. & Harper, A. E. What makes free-range broiler chickens range? In situ measurement of habitat preference. Animal Behaviour, 66, 151 - 151, (2003). |Article|