Chickens don't commute to work or balance checkbooks, but they do get stressed.

Kristen Navara, an endocrinologist in the poultry science department of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is finding ways to help them relax.

Stressed poultry, like stressed people, experience changes in their body chemistry that affect their health and behavior. Understanding the mechanisms that trigger these changes — and how to prevent them — can change the way we understand the way stress affects animals in general, including people.

In the short-term, relaxed chickens are healthier and more productive. Navara says there's a growing consumer demand for breast and thighs from "happier chickens."

"Many people perceive bird's stress through the lens of what they would find stressful," Navara said. "Birds don't assess stress the same way humans do."

Free-range life might seem like a better life to shoppers, but for chickens, which have a tendency toward cannibalism and fight over resources, free-range life actually may be more stressful. Scientists just don't know yet, Navara said.

She works with chickens and finches to test a range of enrichment tools like nesting boxes and shiny bird toys to see what helps the birds relax. Studying chickens gives endocrinologists like Navara and geneticists a good model for research, since they are easy to keep and reproduce quickly.

Navara's earlier research focused on how climate and seasonal changes correlate to different ratios of male and female offspring for many types of organisms, including humans. She's extended this sex ratio research further into chickens.

Poultry producers are interested in finding out what type of diet would induce hens to produce more female chicks. Diet and stress affect the hormone levels in child-bearing females and can affect the sex and health of the offspring.

Researchers have found that parrots in the wild produce more male offspring when food is plentiful. The physiological mechanism that contributes to that kind of phenomenon is what Navara is trying to decipher through her work with chickens.

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