Feather pecking behavior in laying hens: hypothalamic gene expression in birds performing and receiving pecks

Poult Sci. 2011 Jun;90(6):1145-52. doi: 10.3382/ps.2010-00961.


Feather pecking (FP) is a welfare and economic problem in the egg production sector. Beak trimming, the current method used to reduce FP, is also criticized. The present study used gene expression to explore the biological mechanisms underlying this behavior, which could lead to a greater understanding of the cause and a tool to mitigate the problem. White Leghorn hens performing and receiving FP, as well as neutral control birds, were identified on a commercial farm. Hypothalamic RNA from 11 peckers, 10 victims, and 10 controls was hybridized onto GeneChip Chicken Genome Arrays (Affymetrix Inc., Santa Clara, CA) to compare gene expression profiles in the different groups. Eleven transcripts corresponding to 10 genes differed significantly between the 3 groups (adjusted P < 0.05). Eight of these transcripts differed in the peckers compared with the controls, 1 was upregulated in the victims compared with the controls, and 6 differed significantly in the peckers compared with the victims. Additionally, 5 transcripts showed a trend (adjusted P < 0.1) to differ in the pecker-victim comparison. Some of the products of the differently expressed genes are involved in disorders, such as intestinal inflammation and insulin resistance, which fit well with the previously proposed hypothesis that FP is an abnormal foraging behavior. Other findings may also support the proposal that FP is linked to immune mechanisms and may serve as an animal model for obsessive compulsive disorder in humans. In conclusion, this study provides a gene list that may be useful in further research on the mechanisms behind FP.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Chickens / genetics*
  • Chickens / physiology
  • Feathers
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology
  • Genome
  • Hypothalamus / physiology*
  • Stress, Physiological / genetics