RESEARCHERS have developed tiny backpacks that, when fitted to chickens, can assess mite infestations in commercial laying hen flocks.
Dubbed ‘Fitbits for chickens’, the technology can analyse bird behaviour and can, therefore, detect when it changes – potentially because of a mite infestation.
The researchers were based in University California, Riverside, and focused on northern fowl mite.
They first identified three poultry behaviours linked to wellbeing – pecking, preening and dustbathing.
The team hypothesised they would see an increase in the latter two behaviours if infested with mite because they help to keep feathers clean.
Motion sensors placed in tiny backpacks were fitted to laying hens in the experiment.
Computer scientists then developed new algorithms to detect what the chickens were doing – something that proved a particular challenge, according to doctoral student Alireza Abdoli.
“Most algorithms use either shape or features, but not both,” he said. “Our approach is exciting because it increases the accuracy of the data so much and is key to making good decisions about the chickens’ health.”
Traditionally, animal behaviour studies have relied on video or visual observations – more time consuming and prone to errors.
The flock in this study did suffer from a mite infestation, which the team related to an increase in cleaning behaviours.
Once the birds were treated and healed, the data showed preening and dust baths went back to normal levels.
“These results could let farmers know it’s time to examine their birds for parasites,” UC Riverside entomologist Amy Murillo added.
“And the tools we developed can also be used to examine the effects of any change in a bird’s environment or diet.”