A new sensor technology in the form of chicken backpacks will allow farmers to detect parasites in livestock.

A team of researchers from the University of California Riverside have developed new wearable sensors for chickens, nicknamed “Fitbits for chickens”. The sensors have been developed to detect blood-feeding livestock mites.

These mites can make chickens ill and cause lesions to develop on their skin. These infections can also lead to the chickens laying fewer eggs, causing a knock-on economic impact for farmers.

Chicken wearing a small plastic behaviour sensor meant to detect the presence of blood-feeding mites
Chicken wearing a behaviour sensor meant to detect the presence of blood-feeding mites. (Credit: Amy Murillo/UCR)

Recent years have seen a growing concern for the welfare of farm animals. While more livestock (such as chickens) are becoming free-range, little has been done to address the risk of parasitic infestations in such animals.

As lead researcher Amy Murillo explains, “The trend in egg sales is ‘cage free,’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean the chickens are insect free”.

The northern fowl mite is of particular concern to the scientists. Murillo notes that the parasite feeds on blood and often resides in feathers around “the butt area of the chicken.”

So could chicken backpacks be the answer to this parasitic problem? And if so, how do they work?

How the tech was developed

Murillo’s team identified three chicken pastimes that are key indicators of their well-being. These pastimes are pecking, preening and dust-bathing.

It was predicted that infected chickens would preen and dust-bathe more than their uninfected peers, in order to keep their feathers clean.

Motion-sensors were fitted in tiny backpacks that the chickens could wear without discomfort. This process was fairly straightforward. The difficult part was knowing which motions signified each of the three chicken pastimes.

In order to translate the data to recognise each behaviour, an algorithm was created by UCR computer science doctoral student Alireza Abdoli. Unlike human behaviours like walking, chicken behaviours are far more erratic and difficult to predict. This required a more sophisticated algorithm.

“Most algorithms use either shape or features, but not both,” Abdoli said. “Our approach is exciting because it increases the accuracy of the data so much and is key to making good decisions about the chickens’ health.”

More traditional animal behaviour studies rely on visual observation, whereas in this study the technology took on the heavy lifting. After initial flock observations by Murillo, the computer was able to take over.

The findings

The flock used in the study were found to be suffering from a mite infestation, which in turn lead to increased cleaning behaviours. Once the birds were treated and healed, their levels of preening and dust-bathing decreased to normal levels.

More than just an entertaining story, these chicken backpacks could be beneficial for farmers across the world.

“These results could let farmers know it’s time to examine their birds for parasites,” Murillo says. “And the tools we developed can also be used examine the effects of any change in a bird’s environment or diet.”