Researchers from the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology believe they may have cracked the code—the clucking code, that is. A project initiated by a team of professionals at these educational institutions could reveal valuable information about how content and healthy chickens are, based on their vocalization, according to information recently released by both schools.
In the state of Georgia, poultry production is the most profitable agricultural industry, pulling in a whopping $20 billion statewide each year. And industry insiders like Casey Ritz, a University of Georgia associate professor of poultry science, know that improving the health and well-being of chickens could improve the bottom line for individual poultry producers—and possibly translate into a boost for the state's economy. Stressful conditions can stunt a chicken's growth and reduce its value when it goes to market, so it makes sense that producers would want to keep their flocks happy if they want to keep their profits up. And in today's market, there's extra incentive for egg producers to address the welfare of their chickens. The popularity of "cage-free" and "free-range" egg products is proof that modern consumers are demanding a more environmentally responsible and humane approach to the production of foods they put on their table. To remain profitable, producers must answer those demands.
While this particular research project is certainly innovative, the concept of fowl feedback isn't new to seasoned poultry producers. "Many poultry professionals swear they can walk into a grow-out house and tell whether a flock is happy or stressed just by listening to the birds vocalize," says Wayne Daley, a Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) principal scientist who is leading the research. "The trouble is, it has proved hard for these pros to pinpoint for us exactly what it is that they're hearing."
And that's where scientists at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech come in. The researchers are hoping to back up producers' anecdotal claims with scientific evidence by conducting stress-related experiments on small flocks, recording the birds' reactions on audio and video and analyzing the results. "If what experienced farmers hear and sense can be defined and quantified, sensors to detect cues from the birds themselves could really make a difference in providing real-time information on house environment, bird health and comfort," says Michael Lacy, head of the Department of Poultry Science at the University of Georgia.
Although the poultry industry already has measures in place to gauge housing factors, equipment failure and other factors can affect presumably ideal conditions and prove costly to correct. "That's where being able to judge the flock's behavior can be so important," says Daley. "Your temperature sensors might say that things are fine, but the birds could be telling you that they think it's a bit too warm."
The researchers hope that results from this project will ultimately save the poultry industry in production supply costs by allowing them to forgo expensive equipment in exchange for a simple system of microphones and computer algorithms to monitor the condition of their flocks.