Even when they're allowed to roam about the farmyard, chickens are still susceptible to infestations of blood-sucking mites. It now turns out that a backpack-like device could let farmers know when those mites are biting, so treatment could begin as soon as possible.
Typically infesting the rear end of the chicken, northern fowl mites bite through the skin to feed on the blood. This results in itchy inflamed skin lesions which are distressing to the bird, often leading to decreased egg production in hens.
Led by entomologist Amy Murillo, scientists at the University of California-Riverside suspected that infested chickens would show an increase in grooming behaviors such as self-pecking, preening, and the taking of dust baths. In order to track these behaviors, the researchers equipped a group of hens with small motion detectors. The devices are worn on the back, reportedly without causing discomfort, and are described as "Fitbits for chickens."
Utilizing a specially-designed algorithm, a computer analyzed raw data gathered by the backpacks – more specifically, it identified and counted each incidence of the actions associated with pecking, preening and bathing.
Sure enough, it was found that in hens which were known to have mite infestations, those behaviors increased. What's more, once the birds were successfully treated and their skin had healed, the detected grooming actions decreased back to normal levels.
"These results could let farmers know it's time to examine their birds for parasites," says Murillo. "And the tools we developed can also be used examine the effects of any change in a bird's environment or diet."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.
(Source: New Atlas. www.newatlas.com)

The device (lower right) is reportedly well-tolerated by chickens Photo Credit: Amy Murillo/UCR