A Novel Model to Explain Extreme Feather Pecking Behavior in Laying Hens

  • H. Iffland
  • R. Wellmann
  • S. Preuß
  • J. Tetens
  • W. Bessei
  • H.-P. Piepho
  • J. BennewitzEmail author
Original Research


Feather pecking (FP) is a serious economic and welfare problem in the domestic fowl. It has recently been shown that the distribution of FP bouts within groups is heterogeneous and contains a sub-population of extreme feather peckers (EFP). The present study proposed a novel model to detect EFP hens. A mixture of two negative binomial distributions was fitted to FP data of a F2 cross of about 960 hens, and, based on the results, a calculation of the posterior probability for each hen belonging to the EFP subgroup (pEFP) was done. The fit of the mixture distribution revealed that the EFP subgroup made up a proportion of one third of the F2 cross. The EFP birds came more frequently into pecking mood and showed higher pecking intensities compared to the remaining birds. Tonic immobility and emerge box tests were conducted at juvenile and adult age of the hens to relate fearfulness to EFP. After dichotomization, all traits were analyzed in a multivariate threshold model and a genomewide association study was performed. The new trait pEFP has a medium heritability of 0.35 and is positively correlated with the fear traits. Breeding for this new trait could be an interesting option to reduce the proportion of extreme feather peckers. An index of fear related traits might serve as a proxy to breed indirectly for pEFP. GWAS revealed that all traits are typical quantitative traits with many genes and small effects contributing to the genetic variance.


Laying hen Extreme feather pecking Fearfulness Genetic architecture Mixture distributions 



This study was supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG, Bonn, Germany) (Grant No. BE3703/8-2).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

H. Iffland, R. Wellmann, S. Preuß, J. Tetens, W. Bessei, H.-P. Piepho, J. Bennewitz declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

All institutional and national guidelines for the care and use of laboratory animals were followed.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Animal ScienceUniversity of HohenheimStuttgartGermany
  2. 2.Department of Animal ScienceUniversity of GöttingenGöttingenGermany
  3. 3.Institute of Crop ScienceUniversity of HohenheimStuttgartGermany

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