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Chicks prepare for challenges in adulthood with 'play time'

Did you know there’s a whole playful side to chickens? If you’ve ever seen chicks frolicking around, you might have also noticed that the males seem to play more than the girls. Turns out, there’s a fascinating reason why.

Practice for adulthood

A recent study shows us that our feathered friends aren’t just playing around for fun (although it does look like it). It seems that their playtime could be vital practice for their adult lives. This is especially interesting in chickens, where the males and females act very differently.

The researchers involved in this study obtained a clutch of white leghorn chicken eggs and incubated them until they hatched. After the chicks emerged, they were placed in specially designed enclosures referred to as “playpens” within the study. These playpens were created to provide a safe and controlled environment for the chicks to explore and engage in behaviors.

To monitor the chicks’ playtime activities, the researchers conducted observations over a period of several weeks. The observations began when the chicks were just six days old and continued until they reached 53 days old. This timeframe allowed the scientists to capture playtime behaviors across various stages of chick development.

During these observation sessions, which lasted 30 minutes each, the researchers meticulously recorded the chicks’ playful interactions at 15-second intervals. This detailed observation method ensured that even brief bursts of play were documented. The observation sessions were repeated on 15 separate days throughout the study period.

What does chick play look like?

You might think chickens just peck around all day, but their playtime is way more diverse. The scientists observe different playful behaviors:

Locomotor play

This type of play focuses on movement. Chicks might engage in short bursts of running, flapping their wings excitedly, or displaying other energetic, seemingly random movements. These actions demonstrate basic motor skills while potentially burning off excess energy.

Object play

Object play involves interacting with the chick’s environment. This could mean chasing a small object, pecking curiously at something they find, or even passing objects between other chicks.

One specific example the researchers observed was “worm-running,” where chicks picked up a rubber worm and ran with it. Interestingly, adult roosters sometimes display similar behavior with food items as part of courtship with hens.

Social play

This category covers playful interaction with other chicks. Social play in chicks might involve gentle wrestling, mock fighting without intent to harm, or engaging in competitive jumping displays. These interactions could be crucial for developing social skills and understanding their place within the flock’s hierarchy.

Why the difference in male chicks playing?

“Here we show for the first time that there are clear sex differences in the age-related development of play in chickens,” said study first author Rebecca Oscarsson, a PhD student at Linköping University in Sweden. “This difference is mainly because males engage more in social and object play.”

In the world of adult chickens, roosters and hens exhibit very distinct physical characteristics and behaviors. Roosters are typically larger than hens, showcasing more vibrant and colorful plumage. Their behavior also tends to be more assertive and dominant compared to the hens. They are responsible for protecting their territory, alerting the flock to danger, and locating food to share with the hens.

The researchers propose that the stark differences observed in adult chickens may explain why male chicks engage in more frequent play, especially social and object play.

By practicing rough-and-tumble play behaviors, they might be developing the essential skills needed for their future role as roosters. This includes building strength, practicing dominance displays, and potentially learning strategies for territory defense and resource competition.

The bigger play picture beyond chicks

“We still don’t know the adaptive function of play for any species,” noted Dr. Per Jensen from Linköping University. While play is a common behavior across many animal species, scientists are still seeking definitive answers as to why play evolved in the first place.

Evolutionary forces typically favor traits and behaviors that directly contribute to survival and reproduction. It remains unclear how seemingly “fun” activities like play provide a direct advantage in this regard.

This study offers an intriguing perspective on the purpose of play. The results suggest that playtime could serve as a valuable training ground for animals, providing them with an opportunity to practice and refine essential skills they will need later in life.

By engaging in playful activities, animals might gain proficiency in crucial behaviors tailored to their specific survival needs. This concept might hold true even for seemingly domesticated species like chickens.

Future directions

“Many questions remain unanswered with respect to the adaptive functions of play, for example, its effects on later cognitive abilities. We now plan to look into the neurobiological and genetic mechanisms of play. For example, it’s possible that the early development of the cerebellum is linked to play behavior,” said Jensen.

There’s still a lot to explore about playtime in the animal kingdom, but this study gives us a delightful glimpse into the secret world of chicks.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Ethology.


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