Chickens Create 24 Distinct Vocalizations: Why Are Farmers Trying to Decipher Them?

Scientists are helping farmers decode the mysteries of chicken talk in an effort to improve farming conditions.

“USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured,” said David Michaels, Obama’s former head of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “We had support (from White House officials) who agreed that we didn’t want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute.”

The Trump administration has also nixed Obama-era rules that required that poultry that is labeled as organic must be housed in spaces that allow that birds to move freely, stretch their wings, stand normally, and engage in natural behaviors. “This is, in fact, what consumers already expect from the organic poultry and eggs they buy in stores,” said Cameron Harsh, the Center for Food Safety’s senior manager for organic and animal policy. “But the largest poultry producers have so far been able to consider small, cement, fenced-in areas as outdoor access and have not been required to abide by specific spacing limitations.”

Intensive chicken operations rely on battery cages, which confine the animals to a space too small to stand up or turn around in. In addition, they are subjected to de-beaking and overfed to promote rapid growth, which causes deformities and body stress. Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, says that intensively reared chicken is three times higher in fat, one third lower in protein, and lower in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids now than it was in the 1970s. “Keeping chickens in cruel conditions produces a poorer product,” he said.

Keeping animals in cruel conditions also leads to dangers for humans. Large quantities of antibiotics are mixed into the chicken’s feed to limit the progress of deadly diseases such as campylobacter and salmonella, which can spread rapidly in overcrowded farms. The more antibiotics that are used in farming, the less well they work for humans. Diseases like avian flu can race through crowded bird farms and pose a threat to humans. Outbreaks of bird flu impacted the poultry industry in the Philippines, India, Saudi Arabia and Iran in late 2017 and early 2018.

Poultry producers implement factory farming techniques to produce more chickens and eggs at a lower cost. But when these techniques lead to disease, the cost to public health as well as business and governments are high. New estimates find that the 2015 outbreak cost the US $1.3 billion in lost exports. In our search for better ways to feed a growing planet, maybe we should listen to what the birds have to say.

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