Parents and Early Life Environment Affect Behavioral Development of Laying Hen Chickens

E.N. de Haas, J.E. Bolhuis, B. Kemp, T.G.G. Groothuis, T.B. Rodenburg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

59 Citations (Scopus)


Severe feather pecking (SFP) in commercial laying hens is a maladaptive behavior which is associated with anxiety traits. Many experimental studies have shown that stress in the parents can affect anxiety in the offspring, but until now these effects have been neglected in addressing the problem of SFP in commercially kept laying hens. We therefore studied whether parental stock (PS) affected the development of SFP and anxiety in their offspring. We used flocks from a brown and white genetic hybrid because genetic background can affect SFP and anxiety. As SFP can also be influenced by housing conditions on the rearing farm, we included effects of housing system and litter availability in the analysis. Forty-seven rearing flocks, originating from ten PS flocks were followed. Behavioral and physiological parameters related to anxiety and SFP were studied in the PS at 40 weeks of age and in the rearing flocks at one, five, ten and fifteen weeks of age. We found that PS had an effect on SFP at one week of age and on anxiety at one and five weeks of age. In the white hybrid, but not in the brown hybrid, high levels of maternal corticosterone, maternal feather damage and maternal whole-blood serotonin levels showed positive relations with offsprings’ SFP at one week and offsprings’ anxiety at one and five weeks of age. Disruption and limitation of litter supply at an early age on the rearing farms increased SFP, feather damage and fearfulness. These effects were most prominent in the brown hybrid. It appeared that hens from a brown hybrid are more affected by environmental conditions, while hens from a white hybrid were more strongly affected by parental effects. These results are important for designing measures to prevent the development of SFP, which may require a different approach in brown and white flocks.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere90577
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • brain gene-expression
  • open-field behavior
  • yolk steroid-levels
  • feather-pecking
  • group-size
  • social transmission
  • tonic immobility
  • domestic chicks
  • phenotypic correlations
  • offspring phenotype

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