Aviary systems for laying hens offer several advantages over battery cages. However, pecking the feathers of conspecifics remains a serious problem that negatively affects the welfare of the birds as well as the economy of a farm. From experimental studies with small groups, it has been shown that feather pecking and foraging behaviour are related and that both behaviour are influenced by early access to litter substrate. We, therefore, hypothesised, that feather pecking in aviaries can be reduced with an adequate management in the first 2 weeks of life. Each of seven pens on six commercial poultry farms, was divided into two identical compartments (matched pair design). In one of the compartments (experimental compartment) chicks were reared for the first 2 weeks of life with access to litter (wood shavings, in one case with additional straw), while the chicks in the other compartment (control) were kept on a plastic grid. Thereafter, all chicks had unrestricted access to litter and there were no differences between the two compartments neither in housing conditions nor in management procedures. Chicks in the experimental compartments spent significantly more time foraging (week 5), showed significantly less feather pecking (weeks 5 and 14) and significantly fewer birds had damaged tail feathers (weeks 5 and 14). The study demonstrates that in aviaries, under commercial conditions, early access to litter substrate has a significant effect on the development of feather pecking. In order to reduce feather pecking and to increase foraging behaviour, it is recommended that laying hen chicks raised in aviary systems do get access to litter from day 1 on. © 2001 Elsevier Science B.V.
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