Six weeks to play chicken before flying the coop

Young chickens spend lots of time playing – chasing each other, play fighting and picking up objects –  just like puppies or kittens.

Researchers in Sweden have, for the first time, mapped the development of play in young chickens and published the results in Nature Scientific Reports.

“We studied the development of young chickens from hatching onwards, by offering them a special ‘playground’ several times a week”, says Professor Per Jensen from the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology at Linköping University and lead author of the study.

Play behaviour occurs in different categories, broadly divided into object play (involving manipulation of different items), locomotive play (like running, jumping, frolicking), and social play (such as sparring and wrestling).

The researchers filmed the young chickens’ behaviour and identified fourteen different kinds of play. The intensity of the play reached its peak at six or seven weeks of age, just before the young chickens would have become independent from their parents in the wild. As the chickens aged past this point, their play gradually decreased. 

To understand whether play behaviours were affected by domestication, young White Leghorn chickens from a commercial hatchery were compared with chicks of their ancestors, Red Junglefowl. 

There were no qualitative differences between the play behaviours of the two species, with both displaying the fourteen different types of play.

Rebecca Oscarsson, who worked on the study during her master’s programme, says: “We discovered that both played in exactly the same way. 

“So almost 10,000 years of domestication hadn’t changed their play behaviour. However, the tame young chickens played a lot more than their ancestors. This supports the theory that domestication often leads to animals becoming more ‘childish’ in their behaviour.”

Read more: Some chickens really are peculiar

Per Jensen believes that how animals play can indicate how they feel, and that play is used to improve their lives.

“We’re planning a study in which we will stimulate stressed animals into playing, in order to increase their wellbeing. This could be a way of improving the quality of life of animals used in food production”, says Per Jensen.

The research team is from Linköping University, two hours southwest of Stockholm.


For more on baby birds, watch A Duck’s Life on the 2022 SCINEMA International Science Film Festival. 

This ‘duckumentary’ captures a family’s journey to investigate the process of incubating, hatching, and raising ducklings, and the factors that influence the success rate.

Watch the 2022 SCINEMA International Science Film festival entry, A Duck’s Life – A Duckumentary by the Rogers Family, by registering to view it for free on the SCINEMA website. 

Follow the prompts on the email you receive and you’ll find A Duck’s Life – A Duckumentary by the Rogers Family in the Animals playlist. You can watch all the films until August 31 2022 when the festival ends. 

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