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Wednesday, April 1, 1998 Published at 23:48 GMT 00:48 UK


The box beats the battery hen blues
image: [ Research suggests chickens would channel-surf if they could ]
Research suggests chickens would channel-surf if they could

Scientists are claiming that chickens are TV addicts and particularly love watching computer screensavers featuring flying toasters.

Young chicks have been observed becoming transfixed by the computer images - raising hopes that televised entertainment might improve the mood of bored and frustrated battery hens.

Dr Bryan Jones, one of the researchers at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, said: "They respond strongly to fish and flying toasters, which happen to be the two screensavers on the computer in my office.

"Although they are pretty neutral to start with, after about seven days we wheel the TV in and they rush over to watch it.

"The chicks either sit and look at the television or pace up and down in front of it."

Discerning viewers

A blank TV screen produced a distinct lack of interest even from chicks shown it for the first time.

When the chicks were shown one programme for a long period and then offered an alternative, they preferred the new image - suggesting that novelty was the key factor.

The research is part of a government-sponsored programme to find ways of reducing anxiety and aggression in battery hens.

However, animal rights campaigners argue that it is cruel to keep birds in cramped battery conditions. They want the birds to be given more room to roam freely.

Unhappy chickens are poor performers, producing fewer and smaller eggs. Previous studies have shown that alleviating boredom with toys and other forms of stimulus can have a big calming effect on animals.

Battery hens are particularly prone to anxiety disorders, which may lead to feather plucking or self-mutilation.

Big screen in the hen house

Dr Jones said it would not be practical for farmers to provide TVs for their chickens.

But he acknowledged that chicken coop cinema might become a reality one day. "It might be conceivable some way down the line, once you have identified an attractive video, to project this on the roof or walls of the poultry shed," he said.

Encouraging results had also been seen from giving chicks playthings like string, beads, baubles and lengths of chain, he said.

"String is far away the most popular," said Dr Jones.

Details of the research is being published in the new edition of New Scientist magazine.

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