Kinder, Gentler Hens For the '90s

Geneticist creates a tamer type of chicken

WILD, aggressive, territorial, and fiercely competitive. These are not qualities that most people associate with chickens. In fact, these feathery fowl are most commonly portrayed as clucking cowards, tasty alternatives to steak, or simple creatures with a curious tendency to cross the road.

Despite these demeaning stereotypes, chickens are proving to be far more complex than the farmyard ninnies they're often made out to be.

According to poultry researcher William Muir of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., modern chickens are descended from wild jungle beasts prone to elaborate pecking orders, fights, murder, and even cannibalism. Yes, he's talking about chickens.

In fact, the barnyard braggadocio among egg-producing chickens (or hens) is so deadly that egg farmers routinely grind down or ``trim'' the birds' sharp beaks to keep them from maiming each other. The practice disturbs animal rights activists, and according to one researcher, the birds as well.

``My research has shown that beak trimming is very painful for the chickens,'' says Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Mr. Duncan says the fierce henpecking is less of a result of aggressive tendencies, than ``a feeding mechanism gone wrong.'' He says that because 95 percent of the birds in North America are kept in cages, they've started to mistake their cagemates for food.

Enter Dr. Muir and ``wonderchicken.''

In 1982, Muir, a geneticist, undertook a long-term project to breed a better chicken. Muir housed, in separate cages, entire families of half-sister hens and measured the egg production and mortality rates for each group. He only continued to breed within the families that performed best. ``If they work together and play together, they seem happy, and they produce more,'' he explains.

Twelve years and seven generations later, Muir says he has developed a ``kinder, gentler'' cluckster. ``As an experiment, I put 12 commercial birds and 12 of my birds in cages without beak-trimming. After about 30 weeks, the mortality rate was 40 percent for the commercial birds and 4 percent for my birds.''

Some animal-rights activists look askance at Muir's new chicken.

``It seems absurd to spend all this time to develop a less aggressive chicken when all that we should have been doing is developing humane housing,'' says Mary Beth Sweetland, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

``In these cages, they have no choice but to be aggressive to each other.''

In the United States, hens are kept in ``colony'' or ``battery'' cages of nine to 12 birds. Although there are no federal regulations, the poultry industry dictates a minimum cage space of 48 square inches per bird. According to Duncan, a typical battery cage houses about one bird too many. Noting that ``a hen will get very frustrated in the hour or so before she lays an egg,'' Duncan advocates creating more wing room for hens to simulate nesting.

Taking issue with PETA's contention that chickens are too cooped up, Muir says, ``Birds can adapt to their environment. Battery cages may look inhospitable to a human, but from the bird's perspective, there's no place they'd rather be.''

Muir says he has fielded inquiries from producers nationwide and has delivered some birds to farmers on a trial basis. Because his chickens produce up to 78 percent more eggs per hen than commercial birds, Muir says, they could save an operation with 10 million birds up to $4 million a year.

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